India’s Modi stakes reputation on bringing together a G20 beset by international crises

The Indian prime minister during a speech last week in Delhi  (EPA)
The Indian prime minister during a speech last week in Delhi (EPA)

Foreign ministers from the world’s leading economies will descend on Delhi from Wednesday for the most significant event yet of India’s G20 presidency, with host Narendra Modi’s ambitions as a global leader on the line.

The Indian government’s preparations for this week’s meeting have included the sprucing up of various thoroughfares and venues across the capital and the positioning of India as “the voice of the global south”. Giant G20 logos have popped up across the country that feature a globe revolving on a lotus flower – the lotus, coincidentally, being the symbol of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

India hopes that it can convince as many foreign ministers as possible to stay on after the G20 meeting for its annual Raisina Dialogue, a geopolitical conference organised by the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation that will welcome Italy’s far-right prime minister Giorgia Meloni as its chief guest.

The big question for observers is whether this diplomatically frenetic week can yield any significant results given the deep divisions that currently exist between major G20 players, largely a result of the war in Ukraine, or end up as what one analyst calls “a talk shop of the elite”.

If the foreign ministers’ meeting seems carefully planned to tie in with Raisina, there is also significance to the timing of India’s G20 presidency as a whole. New Delhi successfully put off its leadership of the forum for two years until now, and it means the main leaders’ summit in September will come just a few months before India goes to the polls for the 2024 general election.

India wants the G20 to cast Modi as a vishwaguru, or universal mentor, and says that its priority for the summit is to become the “voice of the global south“ – developing economies in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania – and make the grouping more “inclusive, ambitious and action-oriented”.

Mr Modi says depoliticisation of the global supply of food, fertiliser and medicine will rank among the top priorities of the inter-governmental grouping that came into being in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Particularly vexed at being “unheard” in the decision-making process, Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar said in his address marking the start of India’s G20 presidency that the “countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America trust India to speak up for them”.

“We have, of late, been in the forefront of expressing their concerns on fuel, food and fertilisers, and we share the apprehension that sustainable development climate action and climate justice could be side-tracked due to more dominant issues,” said Mr Jaishankar.

The biggest obstacle to Mr Modi’s ambition of being the G20 vishwaguru is undoubtedly the Ukraine war, which entered its second year last week. The conflict has been accompanied by rippling economic impacts around the world, testing energy and food security and turbo-charging inflation for many members of the G20 grouping just as they were recovering from the Covid pandemic.

India's G20 logo is projected on the dome of illuminated Humayuns tomb in Delhi (AFP)
India's G20 logo is projected on the dome of illuminated Humayuns tomb in Delhi (AFP)

“This G20 is very crucial. We should not forget the G20 is a platform for economic issues. We have to remember that it came into being to address the financial crisis in 2007-2008, also referred to as The Great Recession,” says Srikanth Kondapalli, the dean of the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“But that changed after Indonesia extended an invitation to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky under the pressure from some powers. We should not exaggerate that impact on the Indian presidency,” he adds.

The platform ended up becoming “a talk shop of the elite”, says Rafiq Dossani, a senior economist at US-based think tank Rand Corporation.

“It is the global version of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec), which was supposed to be about growth, but has become a talk shop and now largely a failure due to China-US rivalry.”

Apart from its 20 members, invitations to the summit will also be extended to six guest countries, in what is being seen as a form of outreach to increase the legitimacy of the G20 as the “premier forum for international economic cooperation”.

The lack of formal rules for entry and exit to the G20 compounds the problem, Mr Dossani says. Previously it was an exclusive group focused on cooperation, but the current G20 is divided due to geopolitical tensions between the US, China, and Russia.

The Bali summit was interesting in that the expectations were low and achievements positive, he says. “At best, India can hope to [replicate] the ‘spirit of Bali’ in bringing some level of civility in the China-US dialogue and the Russia-US dialogue, but I hold out little hope for the global south benefiting from the G20,” he says.

The idea of using the G20 to unite the global south has ignited memories of the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference when India, Indonesia, Egypt, Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka mobilised a meeting at Bandung, the capital city of the Indonesian province of West Java.

It was forged by the grouping of newly independent countries highly dissatisfied with the bipolar post-war world, agreeing to champion a spirit of non-interference, the sovereignty of the independent nations, and non-aggression.

Narendra Modi arrives for last year’s G20 leaders’ summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali (AFP/Getty)
Narendra Modi arrives for last year’s G20 leaders’ summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali (AFP/Getty)

Dr Shubranshu Mishra from the University of Exeter says India will have to revive its credibility through these notions of internationalism that were promoted by its first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru at Bandung, if it is to fulfil the objective of “inclusive and equitable growth”.

“As one of the pioneers of the Bandung spirit, India pursued a unique approach to building solidarities among the global south nations despite the many differences. However, successive governments following a path to liberal capitalism have eroded pragmatism and India’s status as the voice of the most marginalised nations.

“The presidency of the G20 provides an opportunity to reconstruct political dynamism and build solidarity among the countries in the global south,” Dr Mishra says.

G20 foreign ministers’ meetings are typically used to set the agenda for the bigger leaders’ summit to come. In Indonesia the foreign ministers went their separate ways without a joint declaration because of Russian opposition to reference to the war in Ukraine – something that was repeated at a separate G20 meeting of finance ministers in India last week.

The leaders’ summit in Bali last year was only able to adopt a declaration at all – with some but not all members deploring Russia’s invasion “in the strongest terms” – because Vladimir Putin took his cue from the fractious foreign ministers’ meeting and did not attend.

India says it expects Russia to take part in its G20 events – and has not extended one of its discretionary invites to Ukraine’s President Zelensky. New Delhi has carefully but firmly stated its neutrality when it comes to the war in Europe, maintaining its close relations with Russia while also managing not to harm its increasingly close ties to the US and other western partners.

Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, says at Bali there was no outcome at all and the joint statement was “we agree to disagree”. “Something more than that cannot be expected as there is a growing fundamental contradiction between G20 [members],” he says.

“India’s G20 would be a success as long as the main summit takes place in September with a reasonable number of leaders coming to attend it and Mr Modi has a picture to show with the majority of world leaders at the summit,” he says.

“It started as an economic grouping but today’s economic problems are essentially driven by international politics which includes Russia, China, the US and Ukraine. Staying away from geopolitical issues you cannot resolve the economic crisis. The fundamental contradiction was visible at Bali and will be visible at Delhi unless the war ends.”

Continuing its delicate Ukraine tightrope walk while hosting the disparate sides of the G20 all in one place is a “daunting” challenge for India, says Mr Dossani. “As a middle power politically inclined to the US, but playing with Russia and China in its hope to keep a balance while it moves towards its own great power goals, failure at the G20 will significantly dent the clout that India has acquired over the past year,” he argues.

Apart from steering the G20 agenda, India’s presidency will end just as its domestic political parties begin their fervent campaigning for the 2024 general election.

Analysts say the BJP will hope to ride the wave of a successful G20 by projecting Mr Modi as a world leader influencing global discourse, a friend to key western powers and a bridge between warring nations.

Mr Modi has urged BJP leaders to ensure that India’s presidency is an inclusive event, and described it as an opportunity to showcase the country’s culture and diversity. Yet at the same time the prime minister stands accused of turning a blind eye to growing attacks on minorities and shrinking space for political dissent.

The foreign ministers’ summit comes just a couple of weeks after India’s tax authorities raided the BBC’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai, moves decried by the opposition as a crackdown on press freedom after the broadcaster aired a documentary critical of Mr Modi.

With the world’s eyes increasingly on India between now and the end of its G20 presidency, and with so much at stake going into 2024, Mr Modi will be hoping to avoid any more episodes that threaten to tarnish his reputation on the world stage.