Under the government of Narendra Modi, it may just be that India is starting to get a sense of the value that the much overlooked Commonwealth of Nations could bring to it, as it continues its emergence as a global superpower. India was responsible for the establishment of the modern Commonwealth in 1949 and working in true partnership with the UK and other leading Commonwealth countries, should now help to lead it.
India and the idea of the Commonwealth may have had a slightly fraught relationship at times. The 70th anniversary of the Indian Republic still has the power to bring back to mind the colonial era and India’s historic relationship to the UK. But the Commonwealth should not be considered a relic, rather a “great global good” promoting human rights, good governance and democracy. In the case of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council—the only Commonwealth body with a mandate to promote trade and investment between the Commonwealth’s 52 member countries and businesses—we are actively working to reposition the network as a powerful global trading platform fit for the 21st century and beyond.
The potential is huge. It is estimated that intra-Commonwealth trade in goods and services in 2015 was $687 billion and is projected to surpass $1 trillion by 2020. We have a readymade, English speaking bloc straddling every continent of the world, with common or similar legal and other systems, a combined GDP of $10.4 trillion or 14% of global GDP and a population of 2.4 billion or a third of the world.
But in order to thrive as it could, the Commonwealth needs to be cherished and cultivated by its members. The British government is nervous of showing leadership in transforming the network for fear of being accused of trying to establish “Empire 2.0”. In our post-Brexit context, there is also a nervousness amongst Commonwealth members that Britain will try to use the network as a vehicle for its own bilateral trade deals. Working through this dilemma is a significant balancing act.
India and the Commonwealth share the same values of promotion of democracy, peace and security, and good governance.
India, by contrast, is extremely well placed to take on a leading role. By far the largest Commonwealth member, with nearly 50% of the network’s 2.4 billion population and the world’s fastest growing major economy, India is in the perfect position to redefine the Commonwealth into an institution that could fully serve its global and diverse membership.
The advantages for India would be enormous. Firstly, India’s recent export figures have been very disappointing, contracting by almost 17%—from $314 billion in fiscal 2013-14, to $261 billion in 2015-16. If the country is to hit its goal of doubling the country’s exports to $900 billion and elevating its share of world trade from the current 2% to 3.5% by 2020 (as announced in India’s Five Year Foreign Trade Policy of 2015), then helping to revitalise Commonwealth trade would be a very sensible start.
Deepening economic ties with Africa, another key strategic goal for India’s recent foreign policy would also be facilitated by a greater Commonwealth connection. With Africa’s two largest economies, South Africa and Nigeria key Commonwealth members alongside much of East Africa, there is a huge opportunity to utilise the Commonwealth connection here.
But above all, India and the Commonwealth share the same values. In contrast to the BRICS grouping for instance, the Commonwealth Charter commits members to the promotion of democracy, peace and security, good governance, sustainable development and gender equality, to name just a few. Developing a business agenda through this framework would signal to countries within and outside of the network that it means to act as a force for good in the international system, with a sustainable and inclusive economic growth model at its roots. India’s experience is central to this story.
My sincere hope is that India is finally starting to grasp this opportunity. It has been gratifying to see the beginnings of an India-Commonwealth MSME association take form in recent months. Meanwhile, CWEIC’s own partnership with the Confederation of Indian Industry continues to thrive. Recently, we hosted our first India-UK University Industry Roundtable, with the aim of exploring opportunities for innovation and technology collaboration across the Commonwealth. We are looking to establish our first overseas office in India in the near future.
Next year’s Commonwealth Business Forum and Summit in the UK will be a huge opportunity to accelerate our trade and investment agenda and for India to step up to a leadership role.
The Commonwealth may have been established on the ties of past, but, for both India and the UK it should be considered a key network for the future.
Lord Marland of Odstock is Chairman, Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council.