On 20 July, the popular HBO talk show Last Week Tonight had a two-minute clip on the Commonwealth Games, featured quite appropriately as ‘Why is There Such a Thing?’ “What the f*** are the Commonwealth Games?” it begins. “Well, imagine a competition without the US, China and Russia. Then imagine a track meet dominated by sprinters from Wales, and you have the Commonwealth Games… The games began in the 1930s just as the British Empire was falling flat on its face, and for some reason continues to this day.”
Indeed, nobody quite knows for what purpose the Commonwealth itself exists. Most successful global groupings have at least one well-defined aim. For instance, the European Union is aimed at closer economic and political integration of countries in Europe. BRICS group members — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — have come together to check the carnivorous capitalism of the western world.
But the Commonwealth is a club without rules — quite literally. Other than an understanding that the British sovereign is its head, the Commonwealth has no constitution, no voting rules, and members are under no obligation to come to the defence of a member who is attacked, as in NATO , another organisation that is past its use-by date.
Enter the elephant
So how did India end up in the Commonwealth after waging a brutal two-century-long struggle for independence against the British Empire?
Prior to independence, Congress leader and India’s future prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had dismissed it as “a white man’s club”. He had declared, “Under no conceivable circumstances is India going to remain in the British Commonwealth.” And yet, after independence it was none other than Nehru who kept India within the club after persuading his imperial friends to remove the ‘British’ affix from the old British Commonwealth. It seemed like a good idea at that time.
In Nehru and the New Commonwealth (1983), Bimal Prasad writes: “Nehru was moved mainly by the consideration of the advantages which would accrue to India by close association with Britain at a time when she had emerged into freedom and was still to find its feet in the world.”
According to historian Nicholas Mansergh, Nehru’s decision was swayed by strategic factors. “He wanted to counter British influence in Pakistan and neutralise anti-Indian elements in Britain by staying in the Commonwealth,” he writes in The Commonwealth Experience (1969).
In Nehru: The Years of Power (1970), Geoffrey Tyson writes that Nehru was looking at “certain political advantages” and “enlightened self-interest”.
To Nehru, the Commonwealth offered an established network of international friends and a sense of security. He was hardly in the category of strong-willed leaders such as Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro. He was more of a sentimental dreamer, who may have been swayed by his controversial — some say scandalous — friendship with Louis Mountbatten and his wife Edwina. In fact, one of Mountbatten’s cherished desires — as he said at his appointment as Governor General — was to retain the newly emerging countries in the Commonwealth.
Plus, Nehru had this strong desire to grandstand. In Nehru: A Political Biography, which was banned in India in 1975, Michael Edwards points out that “the Commonwealth also offered a world stage for Nehru himself”.
The Commonwealth today
Where once Nehru felt India needed British capital, weapons and expertise, in the new century the flow has reversed. Today, it is Britain that needs handouts from India. The crown jewels of British industry such as Land Rover and Jaguar are owned by India’s Tata. Corus (formerly British Steel, which once said Indians couldn’t produce steel) is also a Tata company.
The UK Trade & Investment’s Inward Investment Annual Report says India has emerged as the fourth largest investor in the UK, creating over 7,225 jobs in 2013. India is also the second largest investor in London.
A report brought out in April by Grant Thornton, a leading assurance, tax and business consultancy firm, says there are more than 700 Indian-owned businesses in the UK, employing more than 100,000 people.
On 7 July, in a speech delivered in Mumbai and ingratiatingly titled “Good Days Are Coming”, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne pointed out that Indian companies invest more in Britain than in the rest of the European Union put together.
British Premiers from Gordon Brown to David Cameron have made multiple visits to India, seeking investments and markets. The desperation with which the British political leadership tried to pitch the Eurofighter in India during the $10 billion-$20 billion jet fighter competition is a sign of India’s growing importance while Britain declines.
Even British ‘aid’ to India is more important to London than New Delhi. When senior Indian diplomat Nirupama Rao proposed “not to avail of any further British assistance with effect from 1 April 2011” because of the “negative publicity of Indian poverty promoted by Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID)”, London requested Delhi to keep taking the money (a big fat £280 million in annual aid) because cancelling the programme would cause “grave political embarrassment” to Britain.
In fact, the then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee had dismissed Britain’s contribution as “a peanut”.
Tory MP Douglas Carswell said: “This is concrete proof that Britain’s aid programme is run in the interests of Whitehall officials and the DFID machine. The fact is that India’s economy is growing much faster than our own. We should be encouraging free trade with them and trying to learn from them rather than handing out patronising lectures.”
Less than 70 years after Britain lost its empire, the country seems to be on the slippery slope of decline. According to a 2011 Wall Street Journal report, 20 percent of the country’s population lives in poverty. Sweeping budget cuts have consigned millions to the developmental netherworld. As grants dry up, accident and emergency services, maternity units, public libraries and swimming pools have started closing, the disabled population is being asked to fend for itself, and cuts to housing are forcing thousands to sleep on park benches and pavements. A third of charities are likely to shut down, leaving the poor without a cushion.
While outwardly one may see the gleaming towers of The City, the heart of the British financial world, in the inner suburbs there is “an air of panic”, according to a 2012 report in The Guardian. Here people are fighting over discounted vegetables in supermarkets and women are eating once a day so their children are able to eat.
The safety of nuclear-armed submarines — the last vestiges of Britain’s power — and nuclear power stations has been compromised because essential staff has been laid off.
And it’s likely to get worse. Prime Minister Cameron has declared that austerity measures will continue well into the next decade. But he is being overly optimistic. The Office of Budget Responsibility, Britain’s treasury watchdog, says austerity measures will have to continue for the next 50 years to avoid a financial time bomb.
Race to the bottom
In this backdrop, Britain seems less and less committed to the Commonwealth club. In November 2013, Roger Boyes wrote in The Times: “The future of the Commonwealth has become the foreign policy issue that everyone in government wants to avoid. Finance, education and health ministers from the Commonwealth have all been miffed over recent months by Britain’s absence from key meetings. Pressure of competing global commitments is to blame, say Whitehall officials, but the real reason is surely that the Commonwealth, that great postwar, post-imperial construct, has become an embarrassment. The government has gone AWOL because it does not understand this strange rag bag of 53 countries.”
Adds The Economist: “The club runs a good scholarship programme, development projects for its poorest members and a tangled and ineffective bureaucracy, including at least 70 different organisations, which appears to exist chiefly to provide junkets for a well-heeled Commonwealth elite.”
The listless nature of Commonwealth proceedings is in marked contrast to other international bodies such as BRICS, G-20, APEC and ASEAN , which are proactively shaping a new world order.
Y Rafeek Ahmed wrote in The Indian Journal of Political Science (January-March 1991): “There seems to be a progressive decline in the value of the Commonwealth consultations. If doubts are raised about the future of the Commonwealth, then the reasons are not far to be seen. The so-called benefits accruing from the Commonwealth are never of the kind to offset the political disadvantages of being labelled a partner with imperialist and racist countries of the Commonwealth.”
Peter Prestar concludes in the Guardian Weekly (27 July 1986): “I see the Commonwealth as something of a wasting asset. The leaders nearly all had a link with Britain in the past. But I have always had doubts whether the generation coming after them will have the same commitment.”
More than 70 years after its rebranding, the Commonwealth continues to have members with terrible governance and human rights records. The Times, London, says the Commonwealth is basically “a country club for corrupt leaders”. For instance, Britain’s Tony Blair lied his way to the Iraq War, causing the death and displacement of millions of Iraqis.
India has set new records in corruption; Sri Lanka hosted the Commonwealth summit in 2013 despite conducting genocide against its Tamil minority; and Pakistan has the death penalty for blasphemy. As many as 41 out of 53 Commonwealth countries treat homosexuality as a crime, reports The Guardian.
If the only thing that binds the Commonwealth countries remains the fact that nearly all of them used to be ruled by Britain against their will, then it’s a sure walk towards oblivion for this colonial club.
(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own)