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"A vital collection of progressive essays on what a modern India-UK partnership could mean."

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Commonwealth 2.0, not Empire 2.0


India Inc. CEO Manoj Ladwa explains why he believes that a reformed Commonwealth, with the UK and India working in harmony, could create the world’s largest trade bloc.

The ongoing Commonwealth Trade Ministers’ Meeting in London offers the 52-member bloc a unique opportunity to fashion agreements on increasing trade and economic collaboration in a scenario in which many developed countries are pulling up their drawbridges to shut out foreigners.

In that sense, this initiative, the first of its kind within the Commonwealth and the brainchild of the spirited Lord Jonathon Marland, chair of the Commonwealth Enterprise & Investment Council (CWEIC), is a welcome one. It at least is attempting to swim against the rising tide of protectionism in the Western world.

In a politically incorrect throwback to the colonial era, however, an unnamed British official has dubbed the initiative “Empire 2.0”. Now that is exactly the kind of language that many Commonwealth countries, including India, dislike intensely – and with very good reason.

Some people, thankfully only a few, in the UK still view the days of the Empire only with rose-tinted glasses and see it as an era of benevolent British paternalism that brought order to a chaotic world. But in countries such as India, the nearly two-century-long British Raj is seen with either ambivalence or mixed feelings. In fact, according to data compiled by economist Angus Maddison, the Raj led the systematic impoverishment of what was, when the British took over, the richest country in the world.

Indian parliamentarian and author Shashi Tharoor has in his recent well publicised book called this period “an era of darkness” – and provided documented evidence of how British rule left India bereft of its riches.

IGB Strip commonwealth Commonwealth 2.0, not Empire 2.0 IGB StripBut I do not wish to harangue against Britain’s imperial history. It is only to point out that harking back nostalgically to the days of Empire and treating the Commonwealth now as an extension of British foreign policy will not only not help the UK in post-Brexit world, it will actually turn many potential allies in the Commonwealth away.

The UK faces very hard negotiations over the terms of Brexit with Brussels. It needs equitable trade deals with as many of the world’s leading trading blocs/nations as much as the latter need access to British technology and investments.

It is in these areas that the trade ministers meeting in London can be an important milestone in charting out a path for the future. Indian Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman could not be present owing to the ongoing Budget session of the Indian Parliament. So, the India, the only country not to send its trade minister, is being represented by Commerce Secretary Rita Teaotia.

But this does not mean India is according any less importance to this meeting. “The key messages are around ease of doing business in India and all the initiatives being taken by the Government of India. To a large extent there is a recognition that India is doing well in this area and gone up in the World Bank rankings. There is a recognition that trade and investment go together,” India’s Deputy High Commissioner to the UK, Dinesh Patnaik, told the media. “The other focus is on how to create an export economy. The Commerce Secretary will highlight the steps India is taking and also take note of what other countries have done in the field.”

But I feel the meeting will break new ground only if it can re-imagine the Commonwealth as a dynamic trading bloc. The UK and India can provide leadership to this new thrust. For instance, Commonwealth’s first business hub can and should be established in India. Then, the two largest economies in the Commonwealth should engage other members to draw up the architecture for easier intra-Commonwealth trade that could become the starting point of what might one day emerge as the world’s largest trading zone.

There is huge potential. As Canada’s trade minister Francios-Phillpe Champagne pointed out to me over dinner yesterday – Canada does $3.5 billion of trade with the US daily, but only $8 billion with India, annually!

It isn’t an impossible dream. In some ways, freer trade and freer movement of people within the bloc would be taking the grouping back to its foundational principles – but this time without the shadow of the Empire looming over it.