There's been a spat over who should open the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India, next week. Queen Elizabeth, head of the 54-nation Commonwealth, is too busy to attend the event. She's delegated Prince Charles, but members of the Indian organizing committee have apparently discussed whether Indian President Pratibha Patil should preside instead. Why is India still in the Commonwealth, anyway?
Well, membership has its privileges. For starters, hosting the games is a bit like hosting the Olympics. The country in question spends a lot on infrastructure in the hopes of bringing in tourist dollars. More generally, Commonwealth citizens have special rights when living in the United Kingdom—more than what any old immigrant would get. An Indian citizen who resides anywhere in the United Kingdom—that's England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales—has the right to vote in local and national elections and can also help select members of the European Parliament. * (Several Caribbean members also grant residents from Commonwealth countries voting rights.) And if an Indian citizen were traveling somewhere without an Indian Embassy, he or she could get assistance at the U.K. one instead.
The Commonwealth gives "technical assistance" in support of economic growth. Drawing from the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (which amounts to about 29 million pounds per year), the Commonwealth provides its needier member states with advisers on trade and land-use strategies, or consultants to help restructure public services, for example.
The Commonwealth is basically a big club. After the British Empire crumbled, eight states (Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and the United Kingdom) adopted the 1949 London Declaration. This established, in brief, that all members were free, independent, and equal to one another, and that they recognized King George VI as the symbolic head of their association, known as the Commonwealth of Nations. Several dozen countries have joined since. Typically, joiners have a historical connection to Britain (as in, they were colonies), but in 1995, Mozambique (which was not part of the empire) became a member. To get in, applicants must demonstrate a commitment to democracy, including fair elections and representative legislatures, accept that intra-Commonwealth discussions happen in English, and acknowledge Queen Elizabeth II as their ceremonial leader. Participation in the Commonwealth is completely voluntary—any nation could opt out at any time. Members are supposed to commit themselves to the group's ideals, but they don't have any contractual obligations per se (as do members of the United Nations, for example).
A Commonwealth country can, however, get suspended for human rights violations. The group sometimes works to pressure member states (or former member states) that go astray. It forced South Africa out of the association after the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, when police killed 69 peaceful anti-apartheid demonstrators. With the Gleneagles Agreement of 1977, the Commonwealth cut off sporting contact with the apartheid state, and it imposed economic sanctions against the country in the 1980s.
Clarification, Sept. 29, 2010: This sentence was revised to clarify the full voting rights available to Commonwealth citizens in the United Kingdom. (Return to the revised sentence.)