Growing up in India in the last quarter of the 20th century for me the Commonwealth used to be a big thing. When Rajiv Gandhi and Narisimha Rao visited Commonwealth meetings, these used to be big foreign policy occasions and the best of Indian media used to travel with the prime ministers. A lot of policy posturing used to happen, whether that was against Pakistan or against Britain which was seen as an ally of the US and India used to stand in solidarity against the smaller commonwealth countries from Africa and the Caribbean.

In the recent past India has hardly engaged with the Commonwealth and past prime ministers have skipped a few heads of government meetings and even when they did attend this is not seen as an important event both by the government or the media. This is an outcome of both of how the Indian government conducts its foreign policy and the status of the Commonwealth and of the mother country , Great Britain, and its influence in the global political order. I want to talk about Commonwealth, Britain and India in this post.

When I arrived in Britain about 10 years ago I was surprised to find as an Indian citizen I was able to vote in all elections as I was from the Commonwealth. In contrast, EU citizens are only able to vote in local council (municipal) elections but are a not able to vote for their MP. This is a big thing and I don’t know of any other country that allows non-citizens and non -permanent residents to vote in the elections and is an example of how Britain once saw the Commonwealth. This policy is probably a throwback to decades back when after world war 2 , Britain invited citizens from the commonwealth to fill in a labour shortage. Since then immigration has been tightened up although the Commonwealth citizens who do make it here are eligible to vote almost immediately. This policy of letting Commonwealth citizens the right to vote sits in stark contrast to the general discourse about the Commonwealth which is a silence.

Most of my fellow Londoners who are otherwise very aware of the world only know about the Commonwealth because of the commonwealth games in which some of their favourite British sporting stars compete for medals and also probably because the Queen unfailingly includes something about the Commonwealth in her addresses to the nation. Britain until recently was wedded to the EU and that was its major international grouping which governed the majority of its trade, immigration and politics. The Commonwealth had been put into a locker somewhere and only brought out once every couple of years for ceremonial occasions by the royalty to justify its existence and then put back into its place as people started to get bored about the whole point of the Commonwealth.

What has not been discussed , in the past decade at least, is why does the Commonwealth exist with the Queen sitting on top of it as its head ? Because, these are ex-colonies and the British establishment after world war 2 decided that because , in their mind, the British empire was a force of good for its colonies that it makes perfect sense to form a commonwealth to further that good. It made sense for the colonies (most of them at least) to join the Commonwealth as they made their future as independent countries they wanted to be in an association with common roots (of imperialism and Anglo based set of rules) all joined to the erstwhile mother country which still had a lot of economic and political influence to make a big difference to their futures. It all sounded very benign compared to colonial rule and it was all that.  There has been no discussion of the impact of colonial rule on the colonised (India for example is only now beginning to form its opinions which are not affected by the colonial rule!) and the fact that it has been led by a country whose influence has greatly declined in the last few decades and has much reduced ability to peddle favours on the commonwealth grouping. So the grouping until recently has been reduced to discuss general topics around democracy, environment, nuclear weapons, economic progress etc. with a well run commonwealth games on the side for entertainment.

All this was the case until recently but a lot has changed since the last CHOGM in 2015. Brexit has happened and Britain is frantically rummaging through its cupboard to bring out what it can to find its space (read as leadership) in the world post Brexit. The Commonwealth is now a perfect place for Britain to lead and some of the big countries that make up 70% of the population are now either rich or middle income countries and a Britain freed from the shackles of EU can now enter into free trade agreements with these countries. The Commonwealth also makes sense for India which is 50% of the total population of the Commonwealth and that is because of China. India has seen China muscle its way into all other international groupings and the cost of India and atleast for the next 10 years India fees incapable of standing up to China’s combined economic and diplomatic muscle. But the Commonwealth does not include China. Britain did a lot of awful things to China but didn’t colonise it and even though Commonwealth is open to any country to join , I can not see China signing up any time soon !

That leaves India with an open field to conduct its diplomatic strategy with no fear of China outflanking it. Till a decade back India was worried about Pakistan when Kashmir was discussed in international forums and there was always the threat of sanctions. That has gone away and India probably feels that it can get a lot more now out of the Commonwealth in terms of agreeing preferential trade agreement with the big member countries and also the smaller ones that are courted aggressively by China. In theory, these should be easy to do as almost all of them have adapted British way of doing business.

It is likely that the Commonwealth may get a fresh impetus going forward simply because Britain has more use for it now than 3 years ago. But that will depend on what India, Canada, Malaysia and the other big countries get out of it. That will be the challenge for Britain as to how does it continue to lead the group and yet some power decentralises to the bigger countries. While the head of the commonwealth will be the British crown prince Perhaps the Commonwealth office could be based out of Delhi simply because it has 50% of the Commonwealth population.

Perhaps it could be based out of an office in Lutyen’s Delhi which was built to be a demonstration of Britain’s power over its former colony. With the Commonwealth based out of there will the clock coming a full circle in India 70 years after independence and while the decision will be based on current geopolitics it may even go some way in addressing some of the colonial wrongs.

 

 

 

 

 

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Having spent many nights binge watching House of Cards and then further sleepless nights thinking about the various twists and turns in the plot, it is hard not to start this post talking about it. An absolutely brilliant drama and I hope that it revives the art of good political drama. But I have somehow got stuck in the middle of Season 3 as real life took over and somehow that was even more dramatic than House of Cards. So much happened in my life and around me and so quickly that if I saw that on TV I would think that the scriptwriter has lost touch with reality.

Can it compare to Brexit and post-Brexit shenanigans that continue to play out every day? I used to say that British politics is boring and now it is at the other spectrum where no one quite knows what the economy will look like in 5 years from now. That for a developed country with a grounding in steady incremental change is astonishing. No one knows or has little control in shaping the future and all this in the name of getting control back in the country. Yes control will be back in the medium term , but in the short term no one will have any control. What will this gorgeous salad bowl of different cultures ,London, look like post-Brexit ? Has it really gone out of touch with the rest of the country ?

Can it compare to Trump winning the presidential election and starting the most interesting few weeks for a keen observer of US politics ? I was no fan of Hillary. She is the perfect representative of the ‘establishment’ and so easy to bring down. You could almost see campaign managers queuing up in the opposition camp. The fact that Trump got elected after uttering all the insults known to man, is as much of indication of the baseness of Trump character as it is of the incompetence of Hillary and her campaign. Her campaign reminded me of John Kerry’s campaign against George Bush Jr. Can the Democrat party not nominate a Bernie Sanders ? Is he really a ‘socialist’? He is very much left of centre by European standards. Obama’s actions on the Russians for ‘interfering in the democratic process’ are I am sure based on solid evidence. Of course, the American intelligence agencies know all about interfering in the democratic process, having done their fair share of interfering over the years.

Can it compare to me losing my mother, father in law and becoming a father all in one month ? There is enough script in my personal life of the last month to fuel a saas-bahu serial for 10 years. (Ok 5 years!) My mother loved me unconditionally and put up with me for all my failings and even managed to teach me to be positive to balance my natural cynicism. It is hard to conceive a future without her. One day when I can reconcile her going, I want to write about her. My father in law reminded me of a Hindu reformer in the 19th century, like them he developed his own balance between tradition and modernity and like them he excelled in whichever way he chose to lean. He was one of a kind.

I became a father this year and that has helped me to put into perspective all the craziness around me. He is a bundle of joy and he is helping me re-build my own house of cards that so furiously dismantled over November.

Happy 2017.

I have always complained that politics in the UK is boring and if I wasn’t following the news as often as I do I would probably miss an election. I exaggerate, but my general drift is that the election campaigning here is so much more quieter than what I am used to in India. The outcome is also not as dramatic and the power shifts from centre left to the centre right and between them these 2 groupings make up the ‘establishment’.

These established groupings have their own set of groupies in the form of media, pundits (public intellectuals?), think tanks (lobbying groups?) and so when voices emerge from outside these 2 groupings they are shouted down by these set of groups. Fledgling parties and groups are often asked to present a balanced budget manifesto and completely thought through policies with the unstated view that they really don’t have anything new to say that has not been covered by the existing groupings. Of course the fact that the main groupings also base their campaign on unproven pledges (controlling immigration numbers)  often goes unchallenged. The centre right and centre left then control the political ground with the understanding that power (and its spoils) will shift between them as long as they can keep everyone else out. Hence there is very little space for new ideas to emerge and often new policies is the same old stuff packaged differently.

So when the campaigning for the EU referendum started all the main political parties and most of their allied institutions attempted to closed ranks behind remain in the EU. However this time there was a difference compared to the general election as the establishment ,mostly on the centre right, was split and some leading members of the centre-right along with a share of the media , think tanks and set up shop to leave the EU. Without getting into the merits of each campaign this is probably the first time I have seen a genuine clash of ideas, both sides with the influence and authority to be able to think through ideas and the ability (with the help of friendly media and think tanks) to present their ideas to the voters in a credible fashion. The whole campaign has been nothing short of fascinating and I wish I had the time and resources to leave my day job and do more research on the campaign.

The Remain side ran their campaign on their standard template of we are the establishment and we know what is right for the country and we will bring in everyone from Obama to retired spies to scare the shit out of the electorate and also point out how the Leave side are power hungry loonies and closet racists. The difference this time was that the Leave campaign, having played this game from the winning side in the past, were equally adept at this game and ran a subversive campaign and played on the emotions of the electorate to raise a middle finger to the Remain’s fear campaign.

The Remain campaign was so bad that I wonder if they lived in the same country as the Remain supporters. The messages coming out of Downing Street was always about security, terrorism, property prices, jobs, economic future, food prices and basically everything that can possibly go wrong will go wrong if we leave the EU. It was almost as if they were baiting the voters to say we don’t think you can survive without the EU to which the voters said yes we can thank you very much.  While the Remain supporters (including me) were thinking that why are we not talking about the reasons we like the EU  i.e. the multiculturalism, the free flow of ideas and the idea of this one big tent that holds disparate cultures together.Why couldn’t the Remain campaign ask Merkel to deliver a speech in the UK where she says that while it is for the British to decide , here are  the reasons she thinks UK should be part of the EU. The Remain campaign was about the EU is not so bad and the Leave was it is bad and in that race to the bottom there was always going to be one result.

There is talk in the press of how this is class war and how the ‘common’ people have voted and how this is about small towns vs cities and more educated vs the less educated. I disagree with all that. This is not class war and the people heading the campaign are hardly class warriors. People were subjected to a fear campaign and when sufficiently scared the tendency is to raise the draw bridge. There is still some good to come out of leaving the EU but that depends on how quickly the drawbridge is lowered.

 

My earliest memory of watching Around the world in 80 days is as a young boy in a classroom thinking what would I not do for a similar romp around the world. I have watched that movie again and again and even though it seems less and less politically correct every time I watch it , it still is a lot of fun. Watching it yesterday I was reminded of my recent 3 hour romp around the British Museum.

Working my way through the British museum is so much similar to a trip around the world. Each region of the world is represented across different time periods. The museum very helpfully gives you a set tour depending on how much time you have. My tour included a Ming dynasty vase, Samurai warrior dress, an Egyptian mummy followed by the world’s oldest board game from Mesopotamia. Each artefact more beautiful than the other, beautifully preserved, well displayed and documented. For once I didn’t even mind the crowds after all we are all fellow world travellers.

But in spite of the best efforts of the museum, my trip was far from a complete experience. Watching every object I could only wonder what it would be like in its original surroundings. I could only wonder what that beautiful Chola dynasty Nataraja would look like in the hot and humid environment of a Shiva temple in Tamil Nadu or that Samurai dress displayed in the house of the descendants of the Samurai clans and still worn on ceremonial occasions. The objects behind glass though beautiful and mesmerizing seemed dead and out of place in London. They are out of context and part of a fashion parade of objects from all over the world very much like animals in a zoo.

Of course a lot of these objects wouldn’t have survived had they not been carefully preserved in museums. But now that things have some what changed is there a case of returning these objects to where they are from so they could be seen in their proper context ?

Watching the Scottish referendum unfold I was reminded of a comment a colleague had made when the Indian cricket team visited for Sachin’s last Test series in England. He said that he wanted to see a close Test match in which Sachin would get his 100th century and England would win.  This was exactly what I wanted to see in the Scottish referendum i.e. I wanted to see a close election in which all the issues were brought to the surface and finally the union holds together after a close vote. That is exactly what I got !

As a keen observer of politics, the referendum was fascinating in so many different ways – the turnout was at an all time high and it even beat the turnouts in some of the newer democracies , the highest polling rates were among the new voters in the 16-18 age group so maybe now the older generation would stop moaning how things were better when they were young , the arguments put together by all the sides (Yes, No and Netural) were put out with a lot of passion even if the logic of them didn’t make sense and finally the campaigns were run by armies of volunteers who probably took time off from their work or studies to participate in their political movements. It is like watching the replay of a match where my favourite team has won but the losing side beat all the odds to come really close and even taught a few political lessons to the winning side.

But this referendum has also taught me a few things. This is probably the first time in my living memory I have seen a referendum conducted in a democratic manner for a country to secede from a political union. I have only seen referendums conducted to join unions (EU) or for other purposes. Even though there are quite a few regions around the world agitating for secession fro the main country I haven’t seen any given and I didn’t think that I would ever see one too.

The fact that Westminster decided to give a referendum to the Scottish people is probably a reflection of the fact that they were quite confident of winning (previous opinion polls have never crossed the 30% mark for the Yes vote), or they were confident that even if the Scots break away the remaining UK would survive as a confident political unit as it indeed has with the Empire having gone away or maybe a mixture of both. But whatever the reason for giving the referendum, it represents the political maturity of the leaders to let people have their say.

The other referendum that I don’t think will ever happen is on Kashmir. Again my thoughts on this question are similar to the cricket point where I want it be a clean and well fought election in which the Kashmiris decide to stay with India. This to me is probably the only way of deciding the Kashmir question once and for all and for India to get back the whole of J&K that we see in Indian maps.  The only other way is to out gun and outgrow Pakistan, hope that country either implodes or loses interest and rule Kashmir better. If 70 years of our independent history is any guide for the future I don’t see this happening in my lifetime.

My memories of the football world cup go back a couple of decades. World cup matches were mostly in the middle of the night and I remember trying to wake up and watch most of them. This was only my chance to see the players, I had read about, in action. More than the football this was also, apart from the BBC World Service, my only exposure to a truly global platform. The different playing styles, the colours, the fans, the songs and the beautiful game. The fact that India never got even close to qualifying made it even better for me because I could watch it for the love of the game and the tournament. Even though I now follow the English premier league nothing beats the World Cup and watching the tournament unfold in Brazil I for the first time wanted to be there. It has been the most exciting world cup I have ever seen and we are still not in the second round. 

Even though India was not playing I started to follow the Dutch team. The team stood out to me in its very distinctive style of football, the fans who were the most colourfully dressed and the sense of drama that always accompanied the team. Some of my favourite players were in that team and they seemed to me, after Brazil, to be the most exciting team and always wanting to score one more goal than their opponents. Infact the only book on football that I have read was on Dutch football !  The book (A Brilliant Orange) looked at how the footballing culture represented changes in the wider Dutch culture. The Dutch had a good last World cup where they came as runners up to Spain but their style of football was so off putting that it seemed that the manager had picked the rugby team to represent the country in a football tournament.

So I was extremely nervous when I sat in a pub full of Spanish supporters to watch the Netherlands vs Spain league match. My ambitions were pretty low, I just wanted the Dutch to play their distinctive style of attacking football. By the end of the match I had lost my voice out of shouting and the Spanish supporters had lost theirs out of shock. I had expected the team to combust in the next 2 league matches but so far they have both played well and won! (the Dutch are very capable of plying well and losing or playing bad and winning).

Maybe this time is finally going to be their World Cup, maybe they will go out in the second round. To me they’ve already played much better football than the last world cup. GO HOLLAND!!

My memories of the football world cup go back a couple of decades. World cup matches were mostly in the middle of the night and I remember trying to wake up and watch most of them. This was only my chance to see the players, I had read about, in action. More than the football this was also, apart from the BBC World Service, my only exposure to a truly global platform. The different playing styles, the colours, the fans, the songs and the beautiful game. The fact that India never got even close to qualifying made it even better for me because I could watch it for the love of the game and the tournament. This has so far been the most exciting world cup I have ever seen and we are still not in the second round.

Even though India was not playing I started to follow the Dutch team. The team stood out to me in its very distinctive style of football, the fans who were the most colourfully dressed and the sense of drama that always accompanied the team. Some of my favourite players were in that team and they seemed to me, after Brazil, to be the most exciting team and always wanting to score one more goal than their opponents. Infact the only book on football that I have read was on Dutch football !  The book (A Brilliant Orange) looked at how the footballing culture represented changes in the wider Dutch culture. The Dutch had a good last World cup where they came as runners up to Spain but their style of football was so off putting that it seemed that the manager had picked the rugby team to represent the country in a football tournament.

So I was extremely nervous when I sat in a pub full of Spanish supporters to watch the Netherlands vs Spain league match. My ambitions were pretty low, I just wanted the Dutch to play their distinctive style of attacking football. By the end of the match I had lost my voice out of shouting and the Spanish supporters had lost theirs out of shock. I had expected the team to combust in the next 2 league matches but so far they have both played well and won! (the Dutch are very capable of plying well and losing or playing bad and winning).

Maybe this time is finally going to be their World Cup, maybe they will go out in the second round. To me they’ve already played much better football than the last world cup. GO HOLLAND!!