Prime Minister Narenda Modi was in the United Kingdom last week to take part in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. The event that really made news when he was in London, though, was his meeting with members of the Indian diaspora in London, which was carried live by most Indian news networks. That a public relations event overshadowed a 53-nation summit says much about the significance – or the lack of it – of the Commonwealth.

A club of former colonies and dominions of the British Empire, the Commonwealth has been in the news recently for a couple of reasons. One is that at least a few British conservatives, nostalgic for the British Empire, are positioning the Commonwealth as an alternative to the European Union, after the United Kingdom voted to exit the bloc in a 2016 referendum. The second reason is the sudden interest shown by India in the 2018 summit.

But can summit revive what the United Kingdom newspaper The Guardian called “the zombie summit, a biennial gathering of whimsy that refuses to die”?

How India joined

Given India’s long stuggle for freedom from the British Empire, it would seem odd that the country is part of the Commonwealth at all. Delhi’s joining was, in fact, a result of an odd set of circumstances that arose during Partition.

The predecessor of the modern Commonwealth was set up in 1931 by British law known as the Statute of Westminster and promised dominions “autonomous communities, equal in status, united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations”. This statement of equality, however, applied at the time only to the White-majority dominions of the British Empire: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Irish Free State and Newfoundland.

In the meanwhile, India was going through its own debate on whether it wanted to join this club, if and when London offered it as a carrot: should India also become a dominion and accept the British monarch as its head or should it sever every link with the United Kingdom? In 1928, a report authored by Motilal Nehru demanded dominion status from the Raj – a point of view supported by Mohandas Gandhi. However, this conservative position was soon challenged by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Bose. The left wing of the Congress wanted nothing to do with the British and favoured establishing a republic.

Republic or bust

A lack of reciprocity from the British – which refused to offer even dominion status – saw the Congress harden its stand. In 1929, the party announced that henceforth purna swaraj, complete independence, would be its goal. In the next decade, little changed, with the British loath to hand over any power to India, along the lines of, say, Canada. The Congress, too maintained its position about purna swaraj. As late as April 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru argued:

“Under no conceivable circumstances is India going to remain in the British Commonwealth whatever the consequences. This is not a question for me to decide or for any few of us to decide. Any attempt to remain in the Commonwealth will sweep away those who propose it and might bring about major trouble in India.”

Matters changed dramatically, though, in the next few weeks, as a scheme to transfer power to a united India, the Cabinet Mission Plan collapsed and an entirely new basis for the exit of the British had to be thought up that would be predicated on the creation of “Pakistan” and the partition of Punjab and Bengal. This scheme, known to history as the Mountbatten Plan, was decided as late as May, 1947 – just three months before August 15. With transfer of power rushed and communal riots erupting all around, the Congress accepted the British contention that it should step into independence as a dominion rather than a republic. According to historian RJ Moore:

“Mountbatten had sown the seeds of dominionhood by his persistent manoeuvring in April. But it was Congress concern for an immediate transfer of power in order to forestall the spread of direct action and communal disturbances that led the CWC to press the dominion solution during the first week of May. The Muslim League’s toppling of the Punjab coalition and undermining of the NWFP [North Western Frontier Province] Congress ministry convinced Nehru, Patel, and Gandhi that unless power was transferred to a stable central authority at once then problems of national integration would spread like a rash across the sub-continent. A quick transfer under the 1935 Act, with the Viceroy remaining to help with the states, the tribal peoples, and the forces, seemed essential”

As a result, on August 15, 1947, when India became independent, it still had a king: George VI, who would continue to be “king of India” till 1950, when India declared itself a republic.

The Commonwealth adapts

Yet, while this was a symbolic U-turn on the Congress’s pre-1947 stand of breaking completely with the Empire, hard bargaining by the Nehru government meant that in substance, India had lost little. In the 1949 Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference, the organisation adapted itself to let India remain a part of the body even as a republic. The monarch of the United Kingdom would head the Commonwealth but he would not be India’s head of state. After two centuries of colonial rule, having the British King stay on as King of India – even as a titular head in a constitutional monarchy – was simply unacceptable for Delhi. Nehru’s template was followed by the other decolonising countries of Asia and Africa.Today, the Queen of the United Kingdom is the head of state of only 16 countries.

Yet, while joining the Commonwealth might have provided benefits to the Congress at the time of transfer of power, any further gains weren’t immediately apparent. A grouping of nations strung together by the historical accident of being colonised by a single Western nation had few other synergies to help them benefit from the association. The British Financial Times was quite clear that the Commonwealth “does not function as a trading area”. Indian prime ministers skipped the last three Commonwealth summits, not believing that the event was important enough to spend time on. Even in the 2018 meet, it seems India got more work done meeting other world leader in one-on-one chats than anything at the level of the summit.