South Asia Spars Over Commonwealth Summit

Even as they enforce a ceasefire along the Kashmir border and make other peace overtures to each other, India and Pakistan continue to fight each other in multilateral forums.

They famously indulged in a slugfest three months ago at the U. N. General Assembly. The latest instance of their mutual rivalry concerns Pakistan’s continued suspension from the Commonwealth, the 54-nation association of the former colonies of the British Empire, which is scheduled a summit meeting of its heads of government in Abuja, Nigeria beginning Friday.

Pakistan blames India for the suspension. India is a member of an eight-member ministerial group that is looking at the progress Pakistan has made since Gen Pervez Musharraf’s coup d’etat against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999.

Islamabad claims that its exclusion from the Commonwealth on the ground that it ceased being a democracy is unjustified. In October last year, after all, it held parliamentary elections and now has an elected prime minister with his own Cabinet in place.

The domestic political opposition questions the authenticity of the official claim to democracy and argues that all power effectively rests with the president, a post to which Musharraf appointed himself.

Meanwhile, the Indian government would like the world to believe that Pakistan cannot be a genuine democracy – so deeply rooted is its politics in the culture of military authoritarianism and intolerant forms of Islam.

Both India and Pakistan are trying to leverage their positions and lobby friendly states over their Commonwealth status.

Their conflict could get aggravated over the coming election of the next secretary general of the organisation. The Sri Lankan president’s adviser and former foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, has thrown his hat into the ring. India is likely to back him strongly.

For that very reason, Pakistan is likely to lobby its Commonwealth friends against him. In the past too, India and Pakistan have often sparred with each other both inside and around the Commonwealth.

At one level, the tussle over the Commonwealth reflects something of a disconnect within the foreign policy establishments of both India and Pakistan, which have agreed to a Kashmir ceasefire and to working to restore aviation links severed nearly three years ago.

New Delhi and Islamabad are also likely to discuss trade cooperation and the launching of a bus service between the two divided parts of Kashmir.

The present peace overtures between the two are the most significant since their relations all but broke down following a terrorist attack on India’s Parliament building in December 2001.

At another level, the conflict speaks of growing sensibilities in both countries about their global image.

Pakistan is acutely aware of the growing Western perception that it is not pulling its weight in the ‘war on terrorism’ and that many of its nationals are implicated in extremist groups in different countries, with covert support from the military Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

The Islamabad establishment wants to reform the situation and dispel that impression, and reclaim a democratic mantle – after many misses: Pakistan has had military rule for two-thirds of its independent political existence.

Islamabad also boasts that it has established good bilateral relations in the post-Sep. 11 situation with powerful members of the Commonwealth – and that it does not need formal Commonwealth membership.

For all the professed concern about democracy, Britain recently invited Musharraf on a state visit. A Pakistan foreign ministry official was quoted as saying: ”Our membership is more important for the Commonwealth in the changing global scenario, than for us.”

Indian leaders, on the other hand, are keen to promote their country as a ”brand” – a modern, forward-looking nation on the march, with a growing economy, high levels of talent in its population and an open society, where democracy has ”matured”.

Their manoeuvrings in the Commonwealth are of a piece with this. The India-Pakistan tussle highlights the question of relevance of the Commonwealth as an institution.

The Commonwealth has become the site of not one but two conflicts, the second one involving Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe stands accused of having rigged the recent presidential election.

Mugabe has not been invited to the Abuja summit. First, he lobbied for an invitation. Then, two weeks ago, he said he expected an invitation ”at the 11th hour”.

Now, Mugabe says Zimbabwe would quit the Commonwealth if it is not treated as an equal. ”If our sovereignty is what we have to lose to be readmitted into the Commonwealth, well, we will say goodbye to the Commonwealth, and perhaps time has now come to say so.”

Mugabe has exhorted other African nations to boycott the summit, but he received a strong rebuff from South Africa. This is considered a setback for Mugabe’s efforts to divide the Commonwealth into black and white camps.

South African political leaders have been quoted as saying that Mugabe’s exclusion from the Commonwealth ”could signal his fall from power”. This suggests that the Commonwealth still matters for some countries, especially in Africa.

Yet over the years, the grouping of Anglophone former colonies, including settler colonies like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, has declined in importance. Perhaps, the Commonwealth was at its most influential in the 1970s and 1980s, when it served as a forum of trenchant criticism of apartheid in South Africa.

Commonwealth summits generated tremendous moral and political pressure on the apartheid regime and helped shape global opinion against that obnoxious form of racism. The Commonwealth has certainly lost some of that shine, but still remains an arena for sideshows and symbolic conflicts.

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.