The Indian Prime Minister’s meeting with HRH Prince Charles this week is no ordinary meeting.
The two could hardly have come from more different backgrounds: Prince Charles was born the heir to the British throne; the Indian Prime Minister was born into a humble family that once sold tea on trains. His mother washed pots for a living.
Yet despite Narendra Modi’s remarkably less privileged background, his handshake with the Prince of Wales marks a meeting of equals—and a defining step forward in the future of India-UK relations.
India has been independent for 70 years, but as with many former colonies, negative sentiment still lingers in certain quarters. Despite the affection for the Her Majesty the Queen, a royal visit can resurface old tensions.
It is time for both parties to consider their relationship. In the last two decades, the pendulum of influence in the relationship has swung in India’s favour. There is an urgent need for the UK to recognise the shift in the balance of power towards a new global India and transform the relationship into a strategic alliance.
Fortunately, opinions are changing rapidly in both countries, as the post-Cold War, post-9/11, post-Brexit world gets set for the next big challenges.
The opportunity to forge a new path begins with these two men, who have far more in common than they may realise.
Both, for instance, are vociferous proponents of green growth economics and using new technologies like solar power to tackle climate change. Prime Minister Modi’s interest in Ayurveda and Yoga will also resonate with the Prince of Wales, an advocate of herbal medicine.
Most importantly, if Prince Charles, born in 1948, is the first post-postcolonial heir to the British throne, then Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the first post-postcolonial head of the Indian Government.
Born after India achieved Independence, the British Raj is entirely outside of PM Modi’s frame of reference and he has led India into a decisive break with the past.
What could these two men—seemingly so different, but sharing a practical, global and modernising approach—do together? A good place to start would be to revive the Commonwealth.
It desperately needs reimagining. Not as Empire 2.0—as some misguided apologists for the past have suggested in Britain—but as a modern, forward-looking trade bloc that can help its members navigate through the choppy and highly complex waters of the global economy.
The UK has every interest in establishing an 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 per cent of global GDP and a population of 2.4 billion or a third of the world.
Given the UK’s gaping trade deficit and what it stands to gain, the UK must do a lot of the heavy lifting.
And though the UK can use its considerable soft power and prestige to seek to reform and reinvigorate the Commonwealth, it should also use this to enter a new phase of international relations, confronting its past, and presenting a transformational vision of future multilateral ties that partners like India will find satisfactory—equivalent to the exclusive G7, G20, ASEAN or APEC.
To rebalance and redistribute power within the Commonwealth, the UK needs a running mate. And who better than Prime Minister Modi? India’s population of over 1.3 billion represents over half of the Commonwealth, and its youthful drive and culture of enterprise and innovation is hungry to lead a digitally-connected world.
With the head of the Indian Government hoping for a second term after 2019’s General Elections, and the heir to the British throne, looking to his own future role, both have reasons to explore a partnership that will work for the next generation.
Unlike Prime Minister Modi, Prince Charles’ role is above politics. As a champion of internationalism and compassion to the environment, Prince Charles can send a signal to New Delhi that the British people want their partnership to succeed in building enduring ties and tackling global issues such as climate change.
He can engage with India at the very highest level to encourage it to take a greater leadership role— with New Delhi, for instance, hosting the Commonwealth’s headquarters for international trade and investment.
Brexit may dominate UK politics today, but not every area of international relations is solely political. Everyone in Britain, from the 1.3 million British Indians in the UK to the royal family, has a role to play.
The finance sector has a role in thinking innovatively about the role that UK financial markets can play in funding the growth of the Indian economy and its major infrastructure projects. Britain’s universities must look to build partnerships to help establish world-class campuses in India to help to train India’s next generation of leaders.
Both Prime Minister Modi and Prince Charles have everything to gain and very little, if anything, to lose from a more meaningful UK-India relationship of the future.
Can it be done? That’s the 10-billion-dollar question on which this week’s visit rests for the UK.
This article was first published in Prospect magazine on 8 November 2017