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World lands, G20 takes off

Sep 09, 2023 12:37 AM IST

The two-day summit starting today will cap India’s attempt to foster equitable growth at a time of growing friction in the world and a division over framing text on the Ukraine war

The moment has arrived. After 17 summits in the past 15 years across all continents, the leaders of the world’s 20 most powerful economies are in a decked-up New Delhi, ready to make their way to a grand and newly built venue in the heart of the city which will showcase India’s diversity, democracy, and contribution to global good.

Workers at the International Media Center in New Delhi on Friday. (AFP)
Workers at the International Media Center in New Delhi on Friday. (AFP)

India’s G20 presidency kicks off its two-day leaders’ summit on Saturday, marking the culmination of 200 events across 60 cities, an unprecedented act of democratising the world of high diplomacy. A grouping that was unfamiliar to most Indians till a year ago is today a synonym for India’s global role, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as its face.

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India chose the theme of its presidency to emphasise convergences amid common challenges. In a recent piece published in the Hindustan Times, Modi noted that the idea of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” — the world is one family — was the all-embracing outlook that had dominated the theme of the presidency.

“During India’s G20 Presidency, this has translated into a call for human-centric progress. As One Earth, we are coming together to nurture our planet. As One Family, we support each other in the pursuit of growth. And we move together towards a shared future — One Future — which is an undeniable truth in these interconnected times,” Modi wrote.

Addressing a joint press briefing on Friday, India’s G20 sherpa Amitabh Kant reiterated the PM’s idea of India’s presidency.

“When India took over the G20 presidency in Bali, we were in the midst of a scenario of slowing growth and productivity worldwide... India felt that we should start our presidency with the theme of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ — the world is one family. PM Modi said India’s presidency should be inclusive, decisive, ambitious and action-oriented. We’ve lived up to his vision of being inclusive, ambitious, action-oriented and very decisive during our presidency,” Kant said.

But this spirit of unity has collided with harsher ground realities that have affected the presidency and make its success critical from the global perspective. On Thursday, World Bank president Ajay Banga and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Kristalina Georgieva warned in a joint statement, “Growth in the world economy has slowed, with the medium-term outlook at its weakest in over three decades. Progress in poverty reduction has come to a halt. Conflict and fragility are on the rise. The world is facing geoeconomic fragmentation, extreme natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, and increasing levels of public debt.”

The Indian presidency has directly navigated these issues over the past ten months of its presidency, with the geopolitical divisions posing the most severe challenge in two ways.

The first is the divide between G7 countries, which include the West and Japan, on one side, and Russia on the other over the war in Ukraine, which explains Russian President Vladimir Putin’s absence from the summit. India’s last-minute intervention, along with that of its predecessor Indonesia, during the Bali summit in 2022, enabled a joint communiqué with a common language around the war, including Modi’s formulation that this was not an “era of war”. But Russia, along with China, has backtracked from the Bali formulation, even as G7 countries insist on referring to the war that they deem illegal and its implications in any statement. This has made the prospect of a joint communique challenging and is the reason why all ministerials have ended with a chair’s summary and outcome statement.

The other way the geopolitical divide has played out is the division between the US and China, and between India and China, which explains Chinese President Xi Jinping’s absence from the summit this weekend and Beijing’s obstructionism over a range of issues that has taken not just Indian negotiators by surprise but also startled other negotiators.

On Xi’s absence, Kant said, “China brings its own perspective on issues of growth and development. However, in such events, there has to be a consensus and everybody has to be on-board, since every nation has a veto power.”

Moscow will now be represented by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov while Beijing will be represented by Chinese premier Li Qiang.

Addressing the briefing, foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra said, “India’s expectation is that all G20 members will move towards a consensus and we are hopeful of a consensus on the communique.”

But the absences don’t take away from who is present, for the world’s political elite is in New Delhi.

From North America, the US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have landed in India while Mexico is represented by its economic minister. From South America, Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez and Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, who takes over the presidency from India on December 1, are here.

If the Indian-origin Prime Minister of the UK Rishi Sunak has travelled to the country of his roots, the entire European leadership is in Delhi — French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italy’s PM Giorgia Meloni, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, and President of the European Council, Charles Michel. Spain’s first deputy prime minister Nadia Calvino (Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez tested positive for Covid-19 on Thursday) and Mark Rutte, the PM of Netherlands will represent their countries who have been invited as guests.

From Africa, India is hosting the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa who just hosted the recent Brics summit in Johannesburg. But it is here, as a sign of its commitment to the global South and the African continent, Delhi has offset Africa’s lack of representation in the body with its invitations to guest countries. Egypt, Mauritius, Comoros, Nigeria will be represented by their leaders, as India makes a push for include African Union as the newest member of the body.

From West Asia, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and PM, Mohammed bin Salman, will attend the summit as a member country of G20, while United Arab Emirates’s Mohamed bin Zayed and Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq are here as guests.

From India’s neighbourhood in the east, Bangladesh’s PM Sheikh Hasina is in Delhi as a guest, as is Singapore’s PM Lee Hsien Loong. From down under, Australian PM Anthony Albanese is in New Delhi while Indonesia (a part of the G20 troika as the immediate past president) is represented by President Joko Widodo. And from northeast Asia, India’s friends, Japan’s PM Fumio Kishida and South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol, are here.

Add to it the heads of the world’s most powerful international organisations, including the United Nations, World Bank and IMF, and it is clear that Delhi has never witnessed the concentration of global power that it will over the next two days.

But the summit is not just a roll call of those present and absent, neither is it a battle over issues where there remain differences. The Indian presidency also hopes to use the moment to push progressive changes in the global order that incorporates the voice of the Global South, struggling with inflation, debt crisis, food insecurity, and digital transition.

During its presidency, India identified six lines of effort: Ensuring growth, addressing the climate crisis, reversing the setbacks on sustainable development goals, pushing digital public infrastructure, reforming multilateral institutions and promoting women-led development.

Under the Indian presidency, an independent expert group under former US treasury secretary Larry Summers and veteran Indian policymaker NK Singh has made recommendations to reform and strengthen multilateral development banks (MDBs); this will find its way in Delhi declaration where both the mandate and resources available to MDBs are expected to expand. Under the Indian presidency, Delhi has succeeded in defining and pushing its digital public infrastructure template, and this is expected to take the form of a new institutional initiative, the One Future Alliance. Under India, even as differences persist on climate finance, the PM’s personal push for Mission Life — Lifestyle for Environment — has acquired momentum, while Delhi is also set to launch the Global Biofuels Alliance. And this is just a sampling of what’s expected to be finalised over the course of the summit.

Born in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the mandate of the G20 leaders’ summit has expanded from coordinating macroeconomic policy and ensuring growth to a wide variety of domains. And as the world’s most populous country and the fastest growing large economy, building on its work of the past year, India will deploy its domestic and diplomatic strengths to bridge divisions and build convergences as it finalises the Delhi declaration.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Rezaul H Laskar is the Foreign Affairs Editor at Hindustan Times. His interests include movies and music.

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