In five days time the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will take place from 16-20 April 2018 in London and Prime Minister Modi will be attending the meeting that will focus on the theme ‘Towards a Common Future’.  India joined the Commonwealth after Independence in 1947. With 53 members, it is a unique association that links together all the former British colonies on a single stage. The colonial association gave way to the modern Commonwealth through the 1949 London Declaration. The Commonwealth offered for the newly independent India, a platform to engage the world and simultaneously also had at its core the bilateral relation to the United Kingdom. India’s own relations and engagement with the Commonwealth has seen its own dynamics evolve over a period of time.

HM Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of the Commonwealth and a Secretariat was established in 1965 to help members achieve development, democracy and peace. In addition to this, the other institutions include the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, the Board of Governors and the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office. To oversee the growing engagements, the Secretariat has three broad focus areas: Governance and Peace; Trade, Oceans and Natural Resources and Economic, Social and Sustainable Development. It has to be noted that the Commonwealth is a voluntary association without a written constitution or a legally binding treaty and as the 1991 Harare Commonwealth Declaration indicated it offeres a forum for sovereign states to consult and co-operate.

In the period between 1950s to the 1980s, as Indian foreign policy grew and acquired a distinct Non-aligned identity, other fora also became available for New Delhi to engage with globally and the Commonwealth receded to the background. Although there was periodic criticism that the Commonwealth had strong colonial flavour to it, India did not severe its association. The end of the Cold War in 1990 offered a new global terrain of challenges and opportunities for India and its relations to the world. Two domestic developments impacted India in the 1990s and the reshaping of its foreign policy. First, India’s growing economic performance as a result of the economic liberalisation transformed its growth story and the perception of the world. Second, this economic growth coupled with the nuclear test of 1998 subsequently expanded the political footprint of India and also brought a renewed global resurgence of engaging the country. From an international perspective, the end of Cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union not only opened the way to engage the US, but also reconsider other engagements.

The transformation of India from an economic laggard to an emerging market and emerging power also made New Delhi seek to actively enhance its global presence and explore all avenues. It is within this context that New Delhi actions can be analysed as seeking to redefine its engagement with the Commonwealth. In 1993 the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative was established in Delhi.  In June 2007, India announced a candidate - Kamal Sharma’s for the post of Secretary-General, who subsequently won the election. In 2010 India hosted the Commonwealth games in New Delhi and in 2012, Prof. Asha Kanwar was appointed as President and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning. India also hosts the Commonwealth Youth Programme Asia Centre in Chandigarh and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum’s Project Office, Asia, in Mumbai. The steadily growing Indian presence and institutional growth is can be seen as a sign of India investing in the Commonwealth.

In changing times, the idea that leadership could be provided by others from within the group appears to have caught New Delhi’s imagination as well. 31 small countries are members of the Commonwealth and it aims to “work to ensure that international policies, mechanisms and rules are more responsive to small states’ development strategies and resilience needs”. For these states, access to global public goods is of critical importance, and it is this context that offers India a unique opportunity to step up and do more. The Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation created in 1971 can offer India a novel way of supporting the small countries with expertise and knowhow and would offer a win -win situation for both sides.

PM Modi participating in the CHOGM meeting next week after a gap of 3 Summits is also indicative of New Delhi enhancing its engagement with the Commonwealth. After all India has 55 percent of the total Commonwealth’s population and contributes 26 percent of its internal trade. It is indicated that sports diplomacy may be used by India to offer cricket training facilities to members. Whether India takes on a bigger role within the Commonwealth will depend on the outcomes of the meeting next week between all leaders?