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Published on: Dec. 25, 2022, 12:24 p.m.
Will G20 really be India’s moment under the sun?
  • Modi: India’s G-20 presidency will be inclusive, ambitious, decisive and action-oriented

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

During the 1980s, when India organised a succession of events like the Non-Aligned Summit, the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Summit during Indira Gandhi’s time, and the Festivals of India in major foreign cities during Rajiv Gandh’s term, the western commentariat sniggered at our expertise in organising tamashas, a term used pejoratively to describe a spectacle meant to divert attention. Some critics are now uncharitably wondering whether India’s G20 presidency will end up being a year-long tamasha as well? 

"G20, a grouping of 19 major economies & the European Union, was set up in 1999,” observed Jairam Ramesh, the Congress party’s communications head, on Twitter. “Since 2008, an annual summit is held in each member country in turn. It's certainly to be welcomed like similar summits held earlier... the Non-Aligned Summit of over 100 countries took place in New Delhi in 1983, followed by the Commonwealth Summit."

Then came the sting in the tail: "The 2023 Summit will, of course, be milked by the world's greatest event manager for the Lok Sabha elections a year later to distract from real issues of the people." 

The Congress spin-master may have got it right to an extent: already, hoardings of a smiling Modi with the G20 theme ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’ have come up all over the national capital. Of course, Modi has been quick to call a meeting of leaders from all parties, seeking their co-operation to make the G20 presidency a big success.

"India’s G20 presidency belongs to the entire nation and it is a unique opportunity to showcase India’s strengths to the entire world. There is a global curiosity and attraction towards India. It brings great opportunities for tourism and the local economy," he said at the meeting. Leaders of Opposition parties urged him to use the opportunity for the country’s benefit.

SCO too

Apart from the G20 presidency, India is also the chairman of Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO). India’s motive for joining the SCO was reconnecting with Eurasian nations through this multi-alignment regional organisation. It also provides an important platform for India to maintain dialogue and discussion with Central Asian leaders. The grouping is acquiring new clout. Iran is expected to become a member of SCO soon and so will Saudia Arabia, with an observer status.

Diplomatic observers feel New Delhi should optimise its Central Asia strategy during India’s SCO presidency to counter China’s influence in the SCO and the Central Asian region. India can also make significant contributions to the hard power capacity development of Central Asian nations: joint defence manufacturing is one area, as are combined military exercises and training.

On the face of it, the G20 presidency and the SCO chairmanship present India with an opportunity to shape the global narrative. It could be India’s moment under the sun, if handled well.

However, the fact remains that G20 Summit is held annually under a rotating presidency, which currently rests with India for 2023. The group does not have a permanent secretariat, and the presidency is supported by the previous, current and future holders of the post, together called the troika. Along with India, 2023’s troika includes Indonesia and Brazil.

Plateful of challenges

In his remarks at the closing ceremony of the summit in Bali, Modi said that India's G-20 presidency will be inclusive, ambitious, decisive and action-oriented, noting that the country is taking the charge at a time, when the world is grappling with geopolitical tensions, economic slowdown and rising food and energy prices.

To achieve the stated goals, India will organise more than 200 meetings over the year across 50 cities, involving officials and the civil society, culminating in a marquee meeting in New Delhi in September. As many as 30 heads of state and government from the G20 nations are expected to participate in the summit.

  • Kant: the G20 presidency has given India an opportunity to set the agenda

Apart from hosting the summit and setting the theme, the G20 presidency does not come with any formal powers. Rather, it comes with a plateful of challenges: global economic growth is set to come down; many countries are witnessing inflation and recession trends; the situation is compounded by the Russia-Ukraine war and the stand-off between the European Union and Russia, etc. The war will complete one year in February 2023 and there are differences within the grouping on Russia’s role.

India is said to have played a lead role in drafting the statement that came out of the G20 summit in Bali. Given its special relationship with Russia, India now maintains that it expects Moscow to be part of all the processes of G20. Vladmir Putin’s aides have indicated that, unlike the Bali summit, which he skipped, he will attend the leaders’ meeting In New Delhi.

But what if the war persists, more damage is inflicted on Ukraine and western members demand expulsion of Russia, as they did in G8 over its annexation of Crimea, reducing it to G7 in 2014. True, the G7 is more committed to democracy, human rights and the rule of law, as it is to prosperity and sustainable development. But the G20 cannot turn a blind eye to Putin’s war machine heaping one atrocity after another on Ukraine.

China factor

India’s problems with China, also a part of the G20 group (and the brain behind the SCO) pose another potential issue for the effective functioning of the forum. The recent skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops in the Tawang area of Arunachal Pradesh has reopened old fissures between the two countries. Indeed, border tensions have become a recurring theme in our bilateral ties even as trade volumes keep on mounting though Indian officials, for the sake of record, the normalisation of ties to the resolution of the stand-off.

Hosting Xi in New Delhi next year will present a separate challenge for India’s leadership. Besides, a tense competition also persists between the US and China. Modi was seen on television having a fleeting meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, but there has been no serious attempt to break the ice.

Indeed, how Modi deals with the Putin and Xi factors will determine the legacy of India’s G20 presidency. India emphasises a doctrine of strategic autonomy in its diplomatic outreach, pursuing an interest-based foreign policy rather than aligning with any major power. It will, therefore, have its hands full in convening the G-20 leaders in one room for the summit in New Delhi next year – and encouraging outcomes for the global good.

Credibility issues

India’s agenda will also have to grapple with the growing credibility crisis facing multilateral institutions. Many UN-led multilateral institutions no longer reflect changed geopolitical realities, as shown by their failure to forge consensus between major powers and prevent conflict. Even the consensus-based approach on trade and climate change is taking unduly long to produce results.

This has paved the way for other groupings to fill the gap, with India belonging to some of them, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The G-20 is not immune from criticism, with Xi once calling it a ‘talk shop’. 

  • To achieve the stated goals, India will organise more than 200 meetings over the year across 50 cities

Processes under G20 are divided into two parallel tracks – the finance track and the Sherpa track. The finance track is led by finance ministers and central bank governors of member nations, who meet throughout the year. Sherpas, who are personal emissaries of leaders, lead the other track. They oversee negotiations all through the year, discussing agenda items for the summit and co-ordinating the substantive work of the G20.

Working groups designed around specific themes operate within both tracks. These include representatives from relevant ministries of member nations and invited/ guest countries too. Various international organisations, like the UN, IMF and OECD also participate in working groups, which will cover topics like financial inclusion, digital economy, and environment and climate sustainability this year.

SDG agenda

Amitabh Kant, India’s Sherpa at the event, says that the G20 presidency has given India an opportunity to set the agenda, instead of following those set by other nations. “India will assume G20 presidency when there is a global turmoil,” says Kant. “There is a major challenge because of climate crisis, slow sustainable development goal (SDG) implementation, which have to be done by 2030.

So, you have 200 million people who suffered job losses; 100 million have been pushed into extreme poverty; there has been a disruption of global supply chain; SDG, instead of progressing, have regressed". 

Kant believes that G7 is an ‘elitist body’ but in G20 both developed and developing countries are represented. “G20 has had a major impact in the past in global economic and financial issues," he remarks. After the 2008 global economic crisis, there was co-ordinated action in the London G20 summit and a big package was announced.

Basel III norms for banks and the recapitalisation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also emerged from G20.  One will have to wait and watch what emerges from New Delhi.

In 2008, the first G-20 summit-level meeting in the US was during a moment of crisis for the world’s financial systems. In 2022, the task for  Modi and his team is equally crucial, given the lasting effects of the Russian war in Ukraine, western sanctions on energy that will deepen now, economic downturns, pandemic worries (in China, Japan and Korea) and climate change issues that are testing the foundations of globalisation and an inter-connected global economy.

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