The G20 summit means a lot of things for India, and by extension, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The meeting will define India’s role as the champion of the Global South and the voice of several developing countries.It will also be nothing short of a diplomatic conquest for New Delhi as it seeks to unite a divided world in the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Nonetheless, experts suggest that the coming summit will definitely be India’s moment in the sun — an opportunity for the country to emerge as an independent voice whose time has come.
‘Strong shoulder for global south’
Months ahead of the G20 summit, PM Modi had invited 125 mostly developing countries to a virtual meeting in January to signal New Delhi’s intention to be their champion on the world stage.
The meeting underscored India’s intent to not only serve as a bridge to the developing world, but as a rising global player and — importantly — a mediator between the West and Russia.
PM Modi succinctly summed up India’s role in an interview to French media ahead of his visit to France in July this year.
“I see India being that strong shoulder that if Global South has to make that high jump, India can be that shoulder to propel it ahead. For the Global South, India can also build its linkages with Global North. So, in that sense this shoulder can become this bridge of sorts,” he said.
‘India’s coming-out party’
Despite the Ukraine conflict taking centrestage at most global forums, India has focused on issues affecting developing countries, like food and fuel insecurity, rising inflation, debt and reforms of multilateral development banks.
Moreover, in a bid to make the G20 more inclusive, PM Modi has proposed the African Union become a permanent member.
That’s because for a number of developing nations dealing with local conflicts and extreme weather events, the Ukraine war is not as big a priority, Happymon Jacob, founder of the New Delhi-based Council for Strategic and Defence Research, told AP.
“There’s a feeling (in the Global South) that conflicts in other parts of the world, be it Afghanistan, Myanmar or Africa, are not taken as seriously by developed countries or in forums like the G20,” Jacob said.
This makes India’s role all the more important during the G20 summit.
As Alyssa Ayres, who helped build relations with New Delhi as a State Department official, pointed out: “It should come as no surprise that India, a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, remains fiercely independent.”
She said that India saw no contradiction as it seeks “ties with all across the board.”
“It’s a mark of how India sees its leadership role that it has explicitly focused its G20 presidency on bridging concerns of the world’s largest economies with those of the Global South,” Ayres, now dean of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, told AP.
Aparna Pande, a South Asia expert at the Hudson Institute, said that India, in its quest to boost its own global role, has always favored a multipolar world rather than one dominated by a single power.
“India’s strong ties to the Global South — the former developing and non-aligned world — make India the ideal bridge for the US and its allies,” she said.
Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told AFP that G20 summit this week can be a signal that India’s time has come.
“I think in some ways, Prime Minister Modi has wanted to make it India’s coming-out party to the world — as a major power, with its own independent voice, whose time has come,” she said.
Heading into the G20, India has sought to play down geopolitics and seek consensus on development issues such as debt relief and climate change.
But the delicate issue of the Ukraine war is still expected to dominate the summit.
Notably, none of the several G20 meetings held this year have produced a communique, with Russia and China vetoing wording on the war.
They had agreed to at last year’s summit in Indonesia, when the summit statement noted that “most members strongly condemned” the invasion.
If leaders don’t break this deadlock over the weekend, it could lead to the first time that the group’s summit has ended without a communique, an unprecedented setback for the grouping, John Kirton, director and founder of the G20 Research Group, told AP.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is not attending and neither is China’s leader Xi Jinping. Both are sending representatives.
Given New Delhi’s historic ties with Moscow, its surging relationship with the West, and its hostility with Beijing over a years-long boundary dispute, PM Modi is in a diplomatically complicated position.
“Is Prime Minister Modi as skilled and as committed as President Widodo of Indonesia was last year to find a way to produce a communique? That’s more of an open question given the progress of Russia’s war against Ukraine,” Kirton said.
A geopolitical sweet spot
The summit may pose some geopolitical challenges for New Delhi, but it is also expected to serve as a springboard for a country looking to take a big leap.
Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told AP that India is currently in “a geopolitical sweet spot.”
Its economy is among the fastest growing for major countries, it has a large working age population as the West ages, and its neutral stance on the Ukraine war has only boosted its diplomatic sway at the G20.
The global spotlight could also help PM Modi’s popularity ahead of a crucial general election next year.
Vaishnav said that PM Modi has promoted a feeling that “given the geopolitical landscape, the world needs India as much – if not more – than India needs the world.”
This is apparent from President Biden’s repeated praise for India and PM Modi despite some niggles over New Delhi’s stand on the Ukraine war.
“Despite its differences with US over the Ukraine conflict, India still offers a strong partner at a time that China is wooing developing countries,” Pande said.
(With inputs from agencies)