G20 Summit & Modi Government’s Global Test: It’s Showtime for India’s Diplomacy

India is asserting that it can be a bridge between the Global South and the advanced world.

4 min read

India’s G20 presidency is the most significant diplomatic endeavour of the Modi government. A presidency’s high point is the organisation’s summit which is being held in New Delhi this weekend.

It became abundantly clear from the time Indonesia passed the group’s rotational torch to India on 1 December last year that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was determined to use the G20 presidency to showcase his government’s achievements to the international community.

At the same time, he wanted to use it politically to impress on the Indian public how much his diplomacy had raised India’s global status. Finally, he was committed to leaving a lasting stamp on G20’s orientation.

As the summit is about to begin, how has Modi fared in achieving his first two objectives? And, what are the prospects for the success of the G20 summit?

Renewed Awareness Around G20

Modi’s approach in holding G20 meetings at various levels and on various issues in different states was innovative. Usually, such meetings are held in capitals or one or two major cities. While cynics may question the utility of taking middle or even senior-level officers of G20 member states to different parts of India, the fact is that this process made many Indians more aware of the G20 than they were so earlier.

This was noticed by some foreign observers. Rick Rossow who is the chair of US-India policy studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC said at a press briefing organised by the think tank on 30 August “…a lot of Indian citizens and voters just aren’t as engaged in global issues, so it’s nice that they were able to leverage that to, I think, sort of spread out across the nation a bit more of this content."

The Modi government also pushed the idea that the presidency itself was an achievement and at least, some people, not only bhakts bought into this idea although it is, as noted earlier, rotational.

It is interesting that on India taking G20 officials to different parts of the country, Rossow also said, “I think from India’s standpoint, overall the G20 year has really kind of met its expectations. They were able to highlight India’s cultural diversity by taking a lot of the G20 meetings to different corners of the country and bringing a lot of these development issues to parts of the country that may not necessarily get as much attention."

These words would be music to the Modi government’s ears but the ultimate judgement of India’s G20 presidency will be passed on how it fares in conducting a successful summit both logistically, and in substance.

How Putin and Xi’s Absence May Impact India’s Global Image

India has made elaborate arrangements for the summit and it has the experience of handling large summits in the past. It is true that it has never previously managed a gathering of the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries as are represented in the G20 but there is no doubt that the logistical arrangements of the summit will proceed flawlessly. However, substantive outcomes will pose problems.

Many Indian analysts expected that Russian President Vladimir Putin would give the summit a miss. This assessment proved to be correct. China, on the other hand, has now officially announced that Prime Minister Li Qiang would lead its delegation.

The Western camp is relieved that Putin’s presence would have led them to make difficult choices on how to conduct themselves in his presence whereas the Indian diplomats are displaying a degree of indifference to Xi Jinping’s absence by pointing to other leaders who missed G20 summits in the past.

However, they would know that the absence of the top Chinese leader is no small matter. Without Putin and Xi, only the top leadership of the major Western countries would be present and that will necessarily impact the global perception of this G20 summit.

Though, it will not affect Russian and Chinese opposition to the Bali consensus on the paragraphs on the Ukraine war and its impact on the global economy.

Ukraine War and Other Outcomes

There are also reports that the Sherpas who are working on the Delhi Declaration through long hours are hitting a few roadblocks because of the Chinese opposition on certain Indian recommendations on non-Ukraine-related matters.

The luxury of having an Outcome Document containing agreements and a Chair’s Summary which was available for the ministerial meetings is not there now for the summit document. Besides, even if a Chair’s Summary method is adopted by India, it would be embarrassing if it is rejected by Russia and China.

There is no doubt that Modi would like a clean Delhi Declaration and may expect the erudite and able Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to deliver one even if the Sherpa, Amitabh Kant, who is not a diplomat, cannot.

If Jaishankar is able to rise to the occasion and ensure a consensual Delhi Declaration, his position as one of India’s most successful EAMs would be sealed.

If he fails to do so, reasons will be found, but it would dent his halo, except, of course, among the Parivar faithful.


Can India Be a Successful Ambassador of the Global South?

What India will champion is the cause of the Global South on economic issues. The US and the Western members will make all the right noises but, as in the past, they will simply not deliver.

India is asserting that it can be a bridge between the Global South and the advanced world – a laudable objective but always a difficult one to be simultaneously part of trade unions and management, especially if one is assertively demanding a greater role in the current International Order as India is directing.

Yes, what India can point to the countries of the Global South is the manner in which it has used technology for development. That will carry credibility but it will not change the entrenched approaches and vested interests of the advanced world.

All the people, naturally, this writer included, deeply desire a successful outcome for the G20 summit for that will greatly add to India’s stature.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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