Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s realpolitik is in full play as he calibrates the ongoing Indian response to Britain’s gradual disengagement with the European Union and prepares to draw mileage for India from it.
Eager to draw strategic advantage from the post-Brexit situation, Modi is seeking to forge closer links with a beleaguered Britain and is looking upon the Commonwealth as a platform for higher Indian stakes internationally in an arena in which an overbearing China is not breathing down its neck.
That the Indian prime minister is looking at a dominant role for his country in the 53-member Commonwealth is evident from the importance he has attached to the body by attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) summit in London, ostensibly defying the approach of past Indian governments playing down the importance of the grouping. The last that India had been represented at the level of prime minister in CHOGM was in 2010.
That India and Britain have resolved to lower tariff barriers in bilateral talks and the Commonwealth summit has recognised India’s growing stature in the comity of nations are indicative of the fact that the new Indian geopolitics is working, albeit slowly.
Modi’s initiative in talking to British Prime Minister Theresa May about extraditing industrialist Vijay Mallya is directed at earning kudos in India over bringing the high-profile fugitive to book in an election year. This, he reckons, would blunt the edge of the Indian Opposition’s campaign that his administration had abetted in Mallya fleeing the country.
In the Commonwealth, there is an ostensible Indian thrust on assuming a leadership role. This was evident from the slew of funds Modi announced for development and capacity building projects for countries in the grouping. This included a doubling of India’s contribution to the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation from the current $1 billion.
While reaching out to fellow Commonwealth countries through extensive interactions, Modi would need to tread warily so as to not give the impression of taking a condescending, Big Brotherly position which has proved costly in India’s neighbourhood, especially with Nepal and Maldives and to some extent with Sri Lanka.
India’s Commonwealth outreach comes at a time when attempts are afoot to decentralise the grouping’s structure by delegating the operational aspects of the organisation to different member states. India is indeed looking for a bigger role for itself in the new scheme of things. With its size and stature that should be a natural phenomenon. If in that process, India’s arch-enemy Pakistan gets diminished in the eyes of the world, so much the better.
All in all, it’s a win-win situation for India but how much of a benefit a tottering Commonwealth will bring to New Delhi is a moot question. With China spreading its footprint in Asia and Africa virtually on a war footing, Indian diplomacy needs to work out ways to strengthen the economies of smaller countries without seeming interventionist and bossy.
The Chinese are building a ring of countries around India where New Delhi’s strategic interests are put to test. The Commonwealth is one forum in which Beijing cannot enter to assault Indian interests.
It is undeniable that the British still have a colonial hangover which impinges on treating India on an equal footing in Indo-British relations. A more pragmatic approach will help Britain reap realistic returns from an Indo-British partnership that is attuned to the changed context of Britain’s exit from the European community.
As statistics go, India is home to 55 per cent of the Commonwealth’s 2.3 billion population and accounts for 26 per cent of its internal trade. Therefore, its role will be vital to British efforts to revitalise the grouping.
In the context of Chinese efforts to control the sea lanes for world trade, India will need to draw the maritime states of the Commonwealth towards itself, weaning them away from Chinese strategic interests.
At the summit in London, India has reached out to Seychelles and Mauritius in particular to serve mutual maritime interests. Modi will also get an opportunity to touch base with his Sri Lankan counterpart and with the Australian premier with whom India shares maritime concerns.