Open Essay

Narendra Modi at Westminster

Lance Price is an author and political commentator. He is a former BBC journalist and later adviser to Tony Blair. He has published four books including Where Power Lies and The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India
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Why shouldn’t the next Head of the Commonwealth be an Indian?

NARENDRA MODI ARRIVED in London to the kind of red carpet welcome he so obviously expects and appreciates. As with all of his international excursions, he strutted the stage with his signature confidence and style, with one eye on the audience back home and the other on his standing as a world leader from a country demanding both attention and respect.

To his evident satisfaction, no Commonwealth leader is being accorded higher honours or such privileged access, including a private audience with Her Majesty the Queen.

At one level this is merely a deeply-felt thank-you for turning up at all. No Indian prime minister has attended a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, or CHOGM as it’s called, for the best part of ten years. Modi’s predecessors clearly didn’t think it was a good use of their time and they may have had good reason to come to that conclusion.

That Modi is here tells us two things in particular. The first is a certainty—that he expects the visit to produce substantial dividends for India. The second is less clear—that the Commonwealth is more relevant and more important in the fractured and tense international environment of 2018 than it has been for a very long time. And of greater value to India as it seeks fresh opportunities to extend its reach as a global power.

The meeting with Queen Elizabeth II is of more than merely symbolic significance. This is almost certainly her last CHOGM meeting as Head of the Commonwealth. The host country rotates every two years and it’s unlikely to be in London again for some time. Her Majesty is 92 this Saturday and has announced that she will no longer undertake any long distance travel. That very fact alone has ensured that more Heads of Government are here than for previous meetings.

The Queen heads the Commonwealth in a personal capacity, not by right as the British monarch. It is a distinction entirely lost on the public, insofar as they pay any attention to the Commonwealth at all, but it is of profound importance in the context of what the organisation is now supposed to stand for.

All member states are equal and unanimity is required for any and all key decisions. Except, of course, all member states are not equal. The Commonwealth is a hangover from Britain’s colonial past, the Secretariat is based in London, a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, and despite the myth-making it is no accident that the Queen of England is its titular Head.

If all member states were equal, there would be no reason at all why Prince Charles should take over. It won’t be lost on Modi that more than half of all the people living in Commonwealth countries are Indians

The Commonwealth has a number of urgent problems to address and many are being openly debated here this week. A peripheral issue, but one of very real importance both to Her Majesty and to the British government, is will Prince Charles become Head of the Commonwealth when he becomes King? He has had a high profile this week, meeting and greeting leaders, and in recent months has put much time and effort into wooing those leaders on their home turf, including in Delhi last year.

The Queen took the unusual step of publicly requesting that her son take over from her when the time comes. It is a fair assumption that she would not have done so had the collected leaders already signalled privately that were in agreement.

If all member states were equal, there would be no reason at all why Prince Charles should take over. It won’t be lost on Modi that more than half of all the people living in Commonwealth countries are Indians. Why shouldn’t the Head of the Commonwealth be an Indian? A perfectly fair question. Modi criticises dynastic entitlement at home, so why endorse it elsewhere?

The answer is a pragmatic one, not a logical one and certainly not a democratic one. Prince Charles and his mother will almost certainly get their wish only because his appointment follows the line of least resistance. The Commonwealth is governed by consensus and reaching one on any other candidate would in all probability be unachievable and would require an immense demonstration of will by a majority of states to make a big issue over a purely symbolic role.

Symbols matter, however, and allowing the decision to go by default, even as a ‘thank you’ to Queen Elizabeth, is itself a decision. The Commonwealth runs the very real risk of leaving itself wide open to the charge, highlighted by a new book out this week, of being ‘an irrelevant institution wallowing in imperial amnesia’(The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth by Philip Murphy; Hurst; 296 pages; £20).

International bodies only function well when they serve both the domestic needs of their member states and a higher purpose at the same time. Those leaders who do attend, rather than sending a junior, do so predominantly out of self-interest. For smaller states (of which the Commonwealth has many) it can be little more than being seen as players on the international stage, treated—superficially at least—as equals. For larger states more strategic considerations come into play.

To Narendra Modi’s evident satisfaction, no Commonwealth leader is being accorded higher honours or such privileged access, including a private audience with Her Majesty the Queen

British foreign policy has treated the Commonwealth as a Cinderella institution for decades. Suddenly Whitehall is taking it much more seriously. The reason is almost too obvious to be worth remarking upon. Brexit. The European Union, which has sucked up most of the UK’s diplomatic energy for forty years, is soon to be a union minus Britain. Rather than risk being the Johnny-No-Mates of the international community, the UK has blown the dust off the file marked ‘Commonwealth’ and decided that old friends may be the best friends after all.

The volte face is so transparent that it’s a wonder British ministers can keep a straight face. The question became almost academic, however, when the host country’s strategy for this CHOGM was thrown spectacularly off-course by the Windrush Affair. Ministers from the Prime Minister, Theresa May, down were so red faced with embarrassment that no other emotion could be easily discerned. Any pretence that Britain was genuine in its claims to have moved on from its less than glorious history to a position where it would accord equality of respect and fairness to its former colonies was exposed as a hypocritical sham.

The timing could not have been worse and the details of the bureaucratic injustices meted out to individuals and families from Caribbean nations were horrific. People who had lived in Britain for up to seventy years, some having arrived on the passenger liner Empire Windrush in 1948 believing they were welcome and had the right to stay and build new lives here, were threatened with expulsion if they couldn’t produce documentary evidence of their legal status throughout that period.

Access to healthcare was denied, pension rights were withdrawn and driving licences taken back. Worse still, the threat of deportation to countries where they no longer had any connection hung over them for years. Prime Minister May at first refused to meet a delegation of her Caribbean counterparts to discuss the injustices but was forced into an ignominious U-turn when the political and diplomatic uproar reached fever pitch.

The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, who took up that office after it was vacated by May herself when she moved into Downing Street, was forced to apologise to MPs and did so unequivocally. “I am concerned that the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual,” she said. “This is about individuals, and we have heard the individual stories, some of which have been terrible to hear.” It was lost on nobody that this situation came about during the time that Theresa May was in the job.

Satbir Singh, CEO of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, summed up how many saw the scandal. “In the past few days we’ve witnessed the culmination of years of government policy explicitly designed to turn us into a hostile society and which have made the Home Office into an island of inhumanity and incompetence.”

That hostility was deliberate policy, insisted upon by May even before the Brexit debate brought the question of immigration into such sharp relief. Alarmed by the growing electoral strength of populist and often racist right-wing insurgents, she pandered to the sentiments they espoused. The bubble of their popularity was indeed burst, partly by Brexit and partly because Conservative politicians brought those sentiments into the mainstream.

As Commonwealth leaders started packing their bags for the trip to London earlier this week, the message at its crudest appeared to be ‘we want your markets but we don’t want your people’. The immediate issue surrounded the Caribbean region, but the implications were not lost on the rest of the non-White Commonwealth. When May finally met the Caribbean leaders, she said she wanted to refute the suggestion that her government was in some sense “clamping down on Commonwealth citizens” when for years she had been more than happy to give the British public the impression she was doing exactly that.

It was more businesslike than the superstar treatment he received in 2015 and more focused on his domestic record as befits a prime minister whose mind is on the next General Election

Modi has been diplomatic enough not to draw the obvious conclusions in public, but privately he has been pressing ministers to at the very least accord Indians the same access to faster visa applications that have been granted to Chinese citizens. This, and a change in the rules which now forces most overseas students to leave the country as soon as they graduate, adds to the impression that if Britain is not a hostile environment, nor is it a welcoming one.

If Britain’s objectives from CHOGM have been thrown into disarray, India’s have been well-served by Mr Modi sticking to his pre-arranged agenda. When not in the company of the Queen or in ministerial meetings, he focused on visits that resonate back home. He launched the Ayurvedic Centre of Excellence and admired the statue of Basaveshwara which he inaugurated back in 2015. He visited the fascinating ‘Illuminating India’ exhibition at the Science Museum in the company of, yes, Prince Charles. And he engaged in a lengthy question and answer session with NRIs during a ‘Bharat Ki Baat, Sabke Saath’ programme at Westminster Central Hall.

It was more businesslike than the super-star treatment he received at Wembley Stadium back in 2015 and more focused on his domestic record as might be expected from a prime minister whose mind is now very much on the next General Election. There were the expected protests, most of them seeking to highlight alleged human rights abuses, and his critics will have been disappointed but not surprised that he again refused to address in detail the rape issue insofar as it impacts the BJP.

Nor did he engage with May’s other apology of the week when she said sorry for the imposition of laws criminalising same-sex relations which remain on the statute books of so many Commonwealth states long after independence. “I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced and the legacy of discrimination, violence and even death that persists today.” Those words were cheered by human rights activists but seen by more conservative elements as evidence that Britain can’t stop itself from lecturing its former colonies from what it believes to be the moral high-ground.

Which brings us back to whether the Commonwealth can ever shake off the colonial history that gave birth to it and find a role that goes beyond what Prince William described this week as “the mother of all networks”. It is not, has never been, and remains a long way from developing into a trading bloc, however attractive that may now appear to Britain and even to India.

It does retain an appeal that is hard to define but is drawn from the coming together of such diverse nations, even if they struggle to find a language to describe common values that goes beyond the woolly and trite assertion that they are a family who want to behave well, at least in public. For some its attraction lies in who doesn’t get invited to these family get-togethers. No America. No Russia. No China.

In that context, the appeal to Modi becomes a little clearer. He has stood tall here in London and has been courted and flattered, but also shown respect as one of the biggest players in town.

If both the UK and India, for their own reasons, now want to strengthen the Commonwealth rather than neglect it, then that bodes well for its future. That civil society, NGOs and others think it worth the effort to campaign hard for change within its various forums and talking shops speaks of its relevance.

The branding here in London is all about ‘Towards a Common Future’, a phrase as optimistic as it is vacuous. ‘Away from a Troubled Past’ might be closer to the real objective. There will no doubt be a final communiqué that accentuates the positive, which is what final communiqués have sought to do down the ages, but this week has shown that shaking off that troubled legacy remains very much unfinished business.