In­dia can have dra­matic im­pact on Com­mon­wealth’s trad­ing fu­ture

As the fastest grow­ing econ­omy of the 53 na­tions, In­dia has the chance to be one of Com­mon­wealth’s largest pow­ers.

The Sunday Guardian - - & Comment Analysis -

LON­DON: Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s visit to the UK in April, the first In­dian head of gov­ern­ment to at­tend CHOGM in al­most ten years, re­flects a sig­nif­i­cant resur­gence of In­dian in­ter­est in the Com­mon­wealth. The visit is sym­bolic of In­dia’s grow­ing ac­tiv­ity in the or­gan­i­sa­tion—an or­gan­i­sa­tion which can as­sist In­dia not just in fur­ther­ing Prime Min­is­ter Modi’s com­mit­ment to ad­vanc­ing In­dia’s in­ter­na­tional en­gage­ment, but as a plat­form through which In­dia can ac­quire lu­cra­tive new trade part­ner­ships.

The Com­mon­wealth was not orig­i­nally con­ceived to be a for­mal trade bloc, and the truth is that the Com­mon­wealth’s trade po­ten­tial has gone largely un­ex­plored un­til very re­cent years. Whilst the Com­mon­wealth is a great bas­tion of democ­racy, shared val­ues and lan­guage, the trade ben­e­fits for mem­bers have long been over­looked. This is not to say that trade be­tween mem­bers has not oc­curred— rather, that it has not been ac­knowl­edged that the la­tent com­mon­al­i­ties which ex­ist be­tween na­tions are un­der­pinned by the Com­mon­wealth. In­tra-Com­mon­wealth trade costs are 19% lower when both trad­ing part­ners are mem­bers, yet this “Com­mon­wealth Ad­van­tage” is still not be­ing fully cap­i­talised on.

For In­dia and the UK over the last 30 years, al­though still two of the largest con­trib­u­tors to Com­mon­wealth trade, the Com­mon­wealth op­por­tu­nity has yet to play a key role in their re­spec­tive trade poli­cies. But with rapid growth hav­ing now ac­cel­er­ated In­dia onto the world stage at an un­prece­dented rate, it is look­ing to con­sol­i­date its in­ter­na­tional po­si­tion, and look out­wardly to new trade prospects. For the United King­dom, de­spite its his­tory as one of the Com­mon­wealth’s found­ing mem­bers, its trade en­gage­ment over re­cent decades has been en­grossed by its Euro­pean neigh­bours. Al­though the UK has de­vel­oped prof­itable re­la­tion­ships with some Com­mon­wealth coun­tries such as Nige­ria, with whom it is the sec­ond largest trad­ing part­ner, there is still a wealth of op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore. In­dia and the United King­dom there­fore find them­selves in sim­i­lar po­si­tions, al­beit through dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, with the Com­mon­wealth emerg­ing as a mu­tual net­work of huge trad­ing po­ten­tial for both na­tions.

In the last 10 years, the Com­mon­wealth has un­der­gone a sig­nif­i­cant re­nais­sance, and is rapidly gain­ing at­ten­tion as a lu­cra­tive plat­form for busi­ness and trade. Whilst the net­work may pre­vi­ously have been vul­ner­a­ble to ac­cu­sa­tions of be­ing an im­pe­rial relic, thanks to the com­mit­ment of many Com­mon­wealth na­tions, in­clud­ing In­dia, it is evolv­ing into some­thing far be­yond its ori­gin. The next chap­ter in the Com­mon­wealth’s story is be­gin­ning, and In­dia has the op­por­tu­nity to play a lead­ing role.

The Com­mon­wealth it­self of­fers an inim­itable col­lec­tion of po­ten­tial trad­ing part­ners, along­side the even greater pos­si­bil­ity of a Com­mon­wealth-wide trad­ing area. These fac­tors are no doubt at­trib­ut­able to the Com­mon­wealth’s resur­gence in ap­peal, how­ever ac­tion is now re­quired to turn this po­ten­tial into a re­al­ity.

Prince Charles’ per­sonal in­vi­ta­tion to Prime Min­is­ter Modi to at­tend CHOGM was a very clear in­di­ca­tion that the UK is keen for In­dia to reen­gage with the Com­mon­wealth. Yet whilst stronger ties with In­dia are of course ben­e­fi­cial for the United King­dom, this was not the prin­ci­pal mo­tive be­hind this in­vi­ta­tion. In very sim­ple terms, In­dia is home to 60% of all Com­mon­wealth cit­i­zens, and one quar­ter of in­tra-Com­mon­wealth trade in­volves In­dia. In­dia is there­fore an ob­vi­ous and nat­u­ral leader for a re- imag­ined Com­mon­wealth.

It is no se­cret that as the fastest grow­ing econ­omy of the 53 na­tions, In­dia has the chance to be one of the Com­mon­wealth’s largest pow­ers and loud­est voices. This ex­tends fur­ther than just pow­er­ful sta­tus how­ever, as the Com­mon­wealth also of­fers In­dia cov­eted ac­cess to emerg­ing African mar­kets.

In­dia’s ex­po­sure to these mar­kets should not go un­der­stated, as the Com­mon­wealth of­fers some­thing quite unique for In­dia; a mul­ti­lat­eral group, with­out any one mem­ber ex­ert­ing an over­whelm­ing dom­i­nance. Where China dom­i­nates the BRICS align­ment, and the US many other mul­ti­lat­eral in­ter­na­tional bod­ies, the Com­mon­wealth of­fers the chance for In­dia to have an ex­tremely in­flu­en­tial voice in a huge in­ter­na­tional group­ing. Con­sid­er­ing fac­tors such as In­dia’s long­stand­ing de­sire for a per­ma­nent seat in the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, op­por­tu­ni­ties such as that pre­sented by Com­mon­wealth lead­er­ship will have a marked and pos­i­tive in­flu­ence on its new global im­age.

More­over, In­dia has the op­por­tu­nity to en­gage some of its tril­lion-dol­lar eco­nomic weight in Com­mon­wealth mar­kets, with a no­table lack of Chi­nese op­po­si­tion. In­dia has been very pub­lic about its de­sire to en­hance In­dia-African trade, which cur­rently to­tals USD $52bn, and the Com­mon­wealth may well emerge as a di­rect route to achiev­ing this goal. The In­dian gov­ern­ment has found it­self in di­rect trad­ing com­pe­ti­tion with China on cer­tain fronts, but this will not be such a prob­lem in the Com­mon­wealth.

Whilst the UK can help to fa­cil­i­tate the devel­op­ment of a Com­mon­wealth trade agenda, given their size, key de­man­ders of trade growth will no doubt be In­dia and Africa. With a bur­geon­ing mid­dle class, and a grow­ing de­sire to strengthen its in­ter­na­tional ties, In­dia is cer­tainly poised to make a dra­matic im­pact on Com­mon­wealth trade fig­ures; an im­pact that will be mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial for both In­dia it­self, and the wider Com­mon­wealth.

Con­sid­er­ing the sheer mag­ni­tude of In­dia’s econ­omy, in­flu­ence and its pop­u­la­tion, if In­dia wants to play a cen­tral role in the devel­op­ment of the Com­mon­wealth, other coun­tries will ab­so­lutely fol­low suit. In­dia has a key role to play in ce­ment­ing the estab­lish­ment of the new Com­mon­wealth, which is truly on the cusp of some­thing great. Lord Mar­land of Od­stock is Chair­man of the Com­mon­wealth En­ter­prise and In­vest­ment Coun­cil. There is lit­tle doubt that over the past one year Rahul Gandhi has evolved as a politi­cian and the trans­for­ma­tion is ev­i­dent from the man­ner in which he has been ad­dress­ing vi­tal mat­ters that crop up from time to time. How­ever, he still has a long way to go, and thus is vul­ner­a­ble to traps set up through ques­tions and state­ments aimed at in­duc­ing him to stir a con­tro­versy of sorts. Most of the time he seems to for­get that the Congress, with its back to the wall, is fac­ing a re­ju­ve­nated Bharatiya Janata Party led by two full time politi­cians, Naren­dra Modi and Amit Shah, who have per­fected the art of realpoli­tik.

The duo has the ca­pac­ity to cre­ate chances for their party where none ex­ist, and have al­ways taken head-on a street com­bat, re­gard­less of the out­come. In other words, Modi and Shah are po­lit­i­cal gladiators, who would em­ploy ev­ery con­ceiv­able method to check­mate their op­po­nents whether in­side or out­side the Sangh. Draw­ing a leaf from the man­ner in which world heavy­weight box­ing bouts are listed, pro­vid­ing the de­fend­ing cham­pion the pre­rog­a­tive of pick­ing his op­po­nents in a ti­tle de­fence fight, ap­par­ently Modi and Shah are ap­ply­ing the same prin­ci­ple to the po­lit­i­cal con­fronta­tions in the coun­try as well.

On many oc­ca­sions both also play rounds two and three, while con­cur­rently play­ing round one, thereby an­tic­i­pat­ing and pre-empt­ing threats from their po­ten­tial ri­vals at any given time. For in­stance, not only these two, but the en­tire po­lit­i­cal class, in­clud­ing the Congress, re­alises that if the 2019 elec­tion was to be show­cased as a con­test be­tween Modi and Rahul, the in­cum­bent Prime Min­is­ter would have a de­ci­sive ad­van­tage.

There­fore, when Rahul, while an­swer­ing a query dur­ing an in­ter­ac­tion in Kar­nataka, ex­pressed his in­cli­na­tion to be­come the Prime Min­is­ter, in the event of the Congress or its al­lies win­ning the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, he must not have fig­ured how the in­nocu­ous re­mark would be­come the talk­ing point of a se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal dis­course on vir­tu­ally ev­ery TV chan­nel. Bring­ing in the hy­po­thet­i­cal el­e­ment of the ques­tion he had clearly stated, “that it de­pends on how the Congress per­forms... if it emerges as the big­gest party—yes”. When fur­ther probed that what would hap­pen in case it was an al­liance, he replied, “...if the Congress is the big­gest party, then yes”. The can­did an­swer was enough to in­cur a cal­i­brated and well thought through re­sponse from the BJP’s spin doc­tors, who lost lit­tle time in mock­ing the Congress pres­i­dent for mak­ing him­self a PM nom­i­nee, and pro­ject­ing next year’s epic show­down as a Modi ver­sus Rahul one.

In the process, the BJP at­tempted to al­ter the Kar­nataka As­sem­bly elec­tion nar­ra­tive from Sid­dara­ma­iah ver­sus Modi that was not work­ing to its ben­e­fit to Rahul ver­sus Modi. Whether their ef­forts suc­ceeded or not would be known only on count­ing day, since the gen­eral con­sen­sus is that a Rahul-Modi fight would end with the PM win­ning hands down.

Com­ing as it did a year be­fore the Par­lia­men­tary polls, the BJP’s think tanks would now en­sure that this nar­ra­tion re­mains un­changed. Modi and Shah would also be at ease that their work would be less bur­den­some if the billing was con­ducted on these lines. It goes with­out say­ing that the Modi ver­sus Rahul fight has its own abun­dant share of po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tages.

Al­ter­na­tively, a Modi ver­sus Ma­mata Banerjee con­test for the top slot would be a far more dif­fi­cult propo­si­tion. Modi would have to de­ploy all his po­lit­i­cal as­tute­ness to get the bet­ter of the West Ben­gal Chief Min­is­ter, who like the Prime Min­is­ter, is es­sen­tially a street fighter, and knows the turf like the back of her hand. She is the undis­puted leader of her state, and thereby the prospects of her be­ing in line as the first po­ten­tial Ben­gali PM nom­i­nee would make her the re­cip­i­ent of un­prece­dented sup­port. Sig­nif­i­cantly, her op­po­nents, de­spite their best ef­forts, have been un­able to nail her down to any­thing sub­stan­tially dam­ag­ing.

Ma­mata is a Brah­min, who has the ca­pac­ity of gar­ner­ing a pan In­dia sup­port-base if in the event caste pol­i­tics comes into play dur­ing the 2019 fi­nals. She has ac­quired her po­lit­i­cal acu­men from the Congress, and there­fore could read­ily se­cure the sup­port of Congress ac­tivists, past and present, in view of ide­o­log­i­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties. Be­ing a wo­man, in large sec­tions she would touch a chord, thus com­ing out as the most for­mi­da­ble chal­lenger to the Prime Min­is­ter. Some of her meth­ods bear an un­canny re­sem­blance to the tac­tics used by the BJP’s top lead­er­ship. Fi­nally, she has wide ac­cept­abil­ity amongst re­gional lead­ers, who are ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of forg­ing a fed­eral front against the BJP and the Congress.

In fact, the BJP would pre­fer to pit it­self against an al­liance led by Rahul Gandhi, rather than the one spear­headed by Ma­mata Banerjee. This is where Rahul has to un­der­stand the in­tri­ca­cies of pol­i­tics. At present he has to choose be­tween his own am­bi­tion whose ac­tu­al­i­sa­tion ap­pears dif­fi­cult and the larger op­po­si­tion ob­jec­tive of weak­en­ing the BJP. Given this sce­nario, his role should be that of a fa­cil­i­ta­tor rather than that of a main com­bat­ant. Within his own party, there are lead­ers with bet­ter cre­den­tials, yet on ac­count of in­ner party pol­i­tics have had to take a back seat.

Modi and Shah pos­sess the knack and strat­egy to stall Rahul and se­cure the ground. Be­tween us.

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