Striking Right Chords: Modi’s Sharp Showmanship @G20 Is India’s Crowning Moment

Diplomacy-wise, India successfully walked a tightrope between Russia and China and the West including the US and EU.

5 min read
Hindi Female

Make no mistake, the G20 summit of global leaders in New Delhi is a victory for both India as the group's presidency and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in statecraft, though you can always quibble as we can on many things, on some of the surrounding details.

With equal vigour, let there be no mistake that the Delhi Declaration on a host of subjects ranging from the war in Ukraine to digital technologies and sustainability is a victory for the continuity of India's foreign and economic policy initiatives that go back decades, and not just on account of any disruptive creativity displayed by Modi.

The surge has been systematic, though Modi has been blessed with a strong economy giving him his moment under the sun, or the moon, if you wish to bring in India's successful lunar landing last month.

From Prominence To Leadership: How India Championed The Global South 

The G20 as an intergovernmental forum of the world's leading economies was officially formed only in 1999, but its history goes back to 1975 when a club of rich economies was formed as G6 before it went through iterations that sounded like the names of guitar chords: G7, G8 and then back to G7 with the expulsion of Russia in 2014.

I have memories of being in Dakar, Senegal with Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1992 at the summit of what was three decades ago the voice of the Global South, called the G15 group of the proactive among developed countries.

Later in 2007, I travelled with PM Manmohan Singh for a G8 summit in Berlin to which India was one of 10 special invitees – by which time India was declared as an "emerging economy" and not just a "developing country", and then in 2013 to St Petersburg for the eighth G20 summit in 2013 four years after it held its first official summit.

This transition symbolised a milestone in India's gradual emergence as a loud voice of the Global South, a broad term for relative laggards in economic and industrial development.

India’s Sure-Footedness as a Global Voice

Under Modi, the significant contribution in the journey of the emergence of India has been a sense of high-profile confidence coupled with deft diplomacy and a global positioning of India as a leader in both thought and action in digital transformation through the digital public infrastructure that finds mention in the G20 declaration.

Thanks to the Aadhaar Unique Identification project and its financial cousin Unified Payment Interface (UPI), India has created both a precedent and a template that could be of use to the entire world. Aadhaar was founded in 2009 under Dr Singh's leadership. Modi put it on steroids and added a generous dash of green initiatives for the world to combat climate change in a manner where digital and sustainability projects give India a place of global prominence.

In diplomacy, India has successfully walked a tightrope between Russia and China on the one hand and the West including the US and the European Union on the other.

Though we can debate the exact words in the declaration (and trust the European Union not to be impressed with anything soft on Russian Ruler Vladimir Putin), the G20 statement only just stops short of condemning Moscow for the Ukraine war.

This has been helped significantly by a bunch of Indian Foreign Service officers fluent in Russian, and Chinese and that extra ability to find words that scream 'consensus' instead of conflict. If the IAS was called 'India's Steel Frame', the IFS may as well be tagged as 'Bharat's Nimble Nervous System.'


Inclusivist Diplomacy and Cultural Export

The inclusion of the African Union as the 21st member to usher in the G21 is richly symbolic of what was once a rich man's club into an inclusive, humanitarian group to tackle the world's economic and social challenges.

That brings us to the showmanship clearly evident at the Bharat Mandapam at the location which in Indira Gandhi's era was named 'Pragati Maidan' or Progress Ground.

The Hindu cultural symbols used by Modi at the venue to showcase India's art and heritage may be seen by critics as a way of playing religious politics in international garb and they may not necessarily be wrong. But it must be equally remembered that neither his slogan of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (World Is One Family) rephrased for G20 as 'One Earth, One Family, One Future', nor Hindu symbolism are necessarily a Bharatiya Janata Party thing and its love for Hindu nationalism.

Carnatic music icon MS Subbulakshmi sang in October 1966 at the United Nations General Assembly (when India's Prime Minister was Indira Gandhi) a prayer penned by the Hindu pontiff Sri Chandrashekharendra Saraswati of Kanchi. Its words read:

“Maithreem Bhajatha , Akhila Hrujjethreem" (Cultivate friendship to conquer all hearts) followed by "Yuddham thyajatha , Spardhaam Thyajata , thyajatha pareshu aakramamaakramanam, jananee Prithvi, kamadughastey " (Renounce war, avoid competition, give up wrongful aggression on others, Mother Earth is ready to grant all our desires).

Was she addressing Putin well in advance of his Ukranian aggression?

It would seem Modi admirers talk of India being a Vishwaguru (Global Guru) is a furthering of the old tradition of the country using the moral high ground to assert itself in international diplomacy.

Does G20 Become a Gateway for India Into UNSC?

The interesting thing is that the G21 has emerged as a mini United Nations of sorts to reflect the moribund United Nations Security Council in which the Russian veto stands in stark, ironic contrast to his own war on Ukraine.

All that does build up a case for India to enter a reformed United Nations Security Council. In a not-so-subtle way, Modi has built up a successful case for that at the Bharat Mandapam.

We can quibble on the way his face towering all over the Indian capital, the lockdown-like cleaning of New Delhi to beef up security and the erection of partitions to keep out the ugly face of slums from visiting delegates. Critics may point to the irony of Modi speaking for inclusiveness even as his own administration is accused of not walking the talk at home where his party stands accused of misplaced religious pride and a disregard for pluralism.

Despite all that, there is little doubt that the Delhi summit's diplomatic success easily eclipses the carping on Modi. It remains to be seen if the warm glow of his halo sticks until the general elections due next year.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Narendra Modi 

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