India’s Best Post-Brexit Bet is the “Zombie” Commonwealth!

India’s most fruitful engagement with Britain may come through the Commonwealth, writes Raghav Bahl.

5 min read
India’s most fruitful engagement with Britain may come through an organisation long disdained by most Indians: The Commonwealth.

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As tensions mount in sadda, aapro, aamchi (ie, “our” in what the Brits would have once called “three dialects of the natives”) London, how should India respond to this flurry of will-or-won’t-Britain-do-a-Brexit?

As a nation, our feelings toward our former colonisers are complicated at best. For better and worse, the British profoundly shaped modern India, breeding insecurity and sectarianism while imparting some of their most enlightened institutions: Parliamentary democracy, an independent judiciary, rule of law, the English language (and accent), the university system, a robust free press, the civil bureaucracy and military architecture. Because of the British, we play cricket, drink tea and drive on the left side of the road.

Despite Delhi’s efforts to change colonial place names, we still visit McCluskiegunj in Jharkhand, for example, which was once home to a large Anglo-Indian community, and fly into Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun. We couldn’t erase the impact of British colonialism even if we wanted to!


To a lesser degree, India has influenced modern Britain as well. Certain English words— pyjamas and bungalow, for example — come from Hindi, curry is as much a national staple today as Yorkshire pudding, and Darjeeling and Assam are tea-time standards.

Most significantly, Britain’s Indian diaspora — numbering roughly 1.4 million — remains one of the country’s largest foreign-born populations, creating a ‘living bridge’ between the two nations, and a lucrative one at that; India-born residents contribute about 6 percent of Britain’s GDP and remit roughly $4 billion to India each year.

But our trajectories are moving in opposite directions. Where Britain is losing ground, India is gaining. While the UK’s population is ageing — the share of those sixty-five and over is expected to rise from 18 percent in 2016 to nearly 25 percent by 2050, and those under sixteen will decline from 19 to 17 percent of the population — India’s ‘youth bulge’ will help make it the world’s most populous country by 2024. And while the UK’s economy — in 2017 the world’s ninth biggest, measured at PPP — will fall to tenth place by 2050, India’s is expected to climb from third to second, according to the IMF.

No wonder London sees India as a key part of the post-Brexit solution to its looming demographic and economic troubles. One Commonwealth report found that, among other things, Brexit would provide a ‘fresh opportunity’ for India-UK trade, giving the UK more ‘flexibility’ in negotiating a free-trade agreement once its formal departure from the EU is complete.

The Commonwealth, From Pariah to Potential Opportunity

Our most fruitful engagement with Britain, however, may come through an organisation long disdained by most Indians: The Commonwealth.

Even Nehru, who was instrumental in securing independent India’s membership in the association of former British protectorates in 1949, vehemently opposed it at first. “Under no conceivable circumstances is India going to remain in the British Commonwealth,” he said in April 1947, with the Raj refusing to grant India even dominion status.

By the time independence was won, fully and swiftly, two years later, Nehru had changed his mind. He believed the ready-made network of kindred nations would boost India’s security and economic prospects — though he remained adamant that Indians would never answer to the monarch.

Since the demise of the British Empire, the Commonwealth has persisted, despite its waning usefulness. With fifty-three members, it remains the world’s third largest international association, after the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Yet many — including some Brits — consider the far-flung group an arcane artefact of the Empire, devoid of real economic or strategic benefit; The Guardian called the annual meeting of member nations the ‘“zombie summit”, a biennial gathering of “whimsy that refuses to die”.

Others refer to it simply as the ‘British Empire 2.0’. Indians, who never really bought into the concept despite Nehru’s enthusiasm, have been especially indifferent. Between 2010 and 2018, no Indian prime minister bothered to attend a Commonwealth meeting — until Modi acquiesced to London’s insistent overtures, which included a letter from Queen Elizabeth and a personal visit from Prince Charles.


Could India Chair a Revitalised Commonwealth in 2020?

Clearly, Britain is hoping to revitalise the Commonwealth to compensate for the trade losses incurred by Brexit. That will be tough to pull off; pre-Brexit, the EU accounted for half of Britain’s trade, with only 9 percent going to Commonwealth countries.

Similar to India, most Commonwealth members have spent years nurturing new trade relationships with other countries, and will not easily forsake those to please their former overlord. Some Commonwealth nations, including Singapore, have exceeded the UK in GDP growth and per capita income and have no reason to be accommodating.

India, however, has nothing to lose by stepping up its engagement in the Commonwealth, as Modi has vowed to do. It certainly won’t hurt, and it may actually help — not just the member nations and the India-UK relationship, but also India itself. It affords Delhi diplomatic contact with smaller nations it might not otherwise connect with, and is one of the few places where Beijing can’t interfere; as one Indian official told the Financial Times, the Commonwealth ‘gives us a chance to talk to fellow Asian countries without China being in the room’.

At the very least, it provides another global forum for showcasing our strengths. Already Indians comprise more than half the Commonwealth’s total population of 2.4 billion. A 2018 report credited India with driving increased intra-Commonwealth trade and investment, which it predicted would exceed $700 billion by 2020.

With calls mounting for Britain to appoint an outsider to succeed Prince Charles as head of the Commonwealth in 2020, India is an obvious choice to fill that role.

Finally, Britain’s departure from the EU breeds uncertainty, but it also provides new opportunities for cooperation and compromise. Plotting our bilateral course through the post-Brexit world will require hard work and a real willingness to engage in nitty-gritty deal-making. So far Britain has not shown much interest in that.

To move ahead, India can encourage, entice, deliberate and be patient with the UK, but it mustn’t back down: there should be no trade deal without visa liberalisation. India should be happy to lend Britain a hand, just as long as they do the same for us.

(Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of three books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’, and ‘Super Century: What India Must Do to Rise by 2050’.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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