The Commonwealth Games begin tomorrow in Delhi, which offers a good excuse for some thoughts on two neglected topics in contemporary international relations – India and the Commonwealth. With 54 nations involved the Games are a major international sporting event, and were bid for by India as a way of demonstrating their emerging significance in the world, a kind of Olympics in a minor key that would do for the Indian bit of the BRIC nations what the Beijing Olympics did for China. To put it mildly, things have not quite worked out as intended. Some twenty plus firms were involved in the construction of facilities, corruption was near universal, and ten days ago the athlete’s village was still under construction and filthy. A small bridge collapsed injuring dozens. Part of the roof of the weightlifting venue fell down. A heavy Monsoon rain has led to dengue fever being epidemic in Delhi and – you couldn’t make this up – two days ago the Chief Medical Officer for the games went down with suspected typhoid. A plague of frogs is the obvious next step. In the insult to injury category, the Pakistani team have complained about poor security, a complaint that does seem to be justified; an Australian journalist strolled round the village with an imitation bomb in his rucksack without being challenged. A games official managed to make things worse by suggesting that complaints about hygiene and cleanliness reflected western standards which weren’t appropriate, a position that many Africans and Asians found rather offensive – strangely, their athlete’s didn’t appreciate the idea that they were OK with their beds being smeared with doggy-doo.

All this has lead to a stream of press commentary, Indian as well as British, Australian etc, to the effect that this reveals the hollowness of the Indian economic miracle, that first world India co-exists with a very visible third world India, and generally that this sort of thing wouldn’t, indeed didn’t, happen in China. I’d draw a somewhat different message. Yes, third world India is more visible than third world China, but that isn’t because the latter doesn’t exists, it’s because it is hidden up-country, out of the way of western TV cameras. Yes, there is corruption and in China some of the people involved had they dared to have misbehaved would probably have faced a firing squad – but that’s the difference between India and China. For all its many faults, India is a relatively free, pluralistic society. Corruption and incompetence survive because the draconian measures need to end them in a poor country would be unacceptable – and, for that matter, haven’t succeeded in China.

In any event, the games will go ahead and I predict will be successful if, at times, enjoyably chaotic; those stars who have pulled out may regret their decision. The Chief Minister for Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, took personal charge of the project, the village has been cleaned up at high speed by drafting in cleaners from luxury Indian hotels, that is staff who were well aware of the standard required, and the other facilities are, more or less, finished albeit only in the nick of time. The moral is that Indians are excellent improvisers and muddlers-through. My bet is that this quality will serve them well in the years to come. Sooner or later – I’d guess sooner – China will hit a serious political speed bump and the authoritarian regime there will either have to clamp down on the economic miracle, or change dramatically and risk anarchy. India hits political speed bumps approximately once every six weeks (the latest concerns the Mosque/Temple at Ayodhya), but its institutions are resilient and it survives, and will prosper. More power to its arm.

And what of the Commonwealth? It’s a confusing institution to most Americans, and nowadays to most Brits as well – if you want to find an enthusiast, find a Canadian, or perhaps a member of the British royal family. The cynic might say that originally the British Commonwealth, as it then was but nowadays very definitely isn’t, was designed to allow traditionalist Brits to think the Empire was still in existence. But while British no longer care about the loss of Empire, the Commonwealth survives and prospers – indeed it now has new members who weren’t even former British colonies, Mozambique and Rwanda. How did this happen?

Different countries have different reasons for supporting the Commonwealth – in Canada’s case it is to distinguish them from big brother down south, for Rwanda’s political class it is a way of countering French influence, for all the developing countries it is a source of aid and favourable trade with the developed country members. Looked at from a global perspective it is interesting that this is one of the few institutions where national leaders from North and South can relate to one another in an informal context. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGMs) which take place every two years (next meeting 2011 in Australia) under a rotating Chairperson (currently Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar of Trinidad & Tobago) are occasions where leaders from differently parts of the world can talk informally without interpreters and in a kind of family atmosphere, under the benign gaze of the nominal Head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth. Incidentally, interesting if pointless factoid, because the Queen is the Head of the Commonwealth, members don’t have Embassies to each other, they have High Commissions – even the Republics go along with this fiction.

The Commonwealth has at least a nominal commitment to democratic government, and has suspended from membership (and thus trade and aid privileges) countries where coups have taken place or where there are systematic violations of civil liberties. All in all, it would be difficult to argue that the Commonwealth is a major player on the world stage, but it does make a small contribution towards making the world a more civilised place, and in that task we need all the help we can get.

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