Since last December, when India took over the chair of G20 from Indonesia, the summit had been projected as a major feather in the government’s cap. Though G20 has a rotating presidency, India decided to make it a mega celebration something no other country had done before. Ordinary Indians, even those not interested in foreign affairs, now know that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hosting important world leaders, so pervasive has been the publicity around the event. The nation has been bombarded for months with G20 cutouts at every conceivable nook and corner of the country.
In fact, the celebrations began from day one, when the G20 logo was launched by the Prime Minister. Some 250 events were organised across 60 cities; from Srinagar to Guwahati; from Bangalore to Goa; and, in places like the Rann of Kutch and Khajuraho, with Lucknow, Jodhpur, as well as Thiruanthapuram thrown in to give visitors a taste of the variety that India has to offer. It’s been a people-oriented celebration, with school and college kids participating in debates and workshops on the various themes of India’s presidency. Many Indians see the G20 as a turning point, which would leapfrog India, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Vishwaguru into the big league. India believes that the time has come to take its rightful place in the world stage. Its economy is doing well, the Chandrayan mission has made it one of the select nations to successfully send a mission to the moon, and in the next decade, India wants to emerge as the world’s third-largest economy.
But is the G20 such a big deal? In fact, how important is it in stabilising the world economy and where does it stand vis-à-vis the all-powerful G7, the platform for the rich industrialised countries?
“The G7 may comprise some of the world’s major economies and top powers, but at the end of the day, it’s a Western bloc. The G20, which brings in top economies from the Global South, is more representative of the world on the whole. But with so many competing and clashing powers under the same tent, the G20 often struggles to get things done, and especially today at a moment of intense great power competition,” says Michael Kugelman, Director, South Asia Institute, Wilson Center, Washington DC.
G20, short for Group of 20, began as a gathering of finance ministers and reserve bank governors in 1999 to discuss and coordinate economic policies. The nations that make up the G20 include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Türkiye, Britain, the US and the European Union.
The group evolved into a more powerful brand when the heads of governments began to meet, initially in response to the devastating 2008 financial crisis―said to be the most serious threat to the world economy since the Great Depression. The first G20 Summit was held in Washington in November 2008, during George Bush’s second term in office.
Since then, leaders of the G20 have met regularly once a year and the presence of the heads of government has also made the forum much more political. More so today with the Ukraine war dividing the world into pro-US and pro-Russia camps. Like India, the majority of the countries of the Global South prefer to remain neutral and want to have a toehold in both camps. The US-China rivalry, as well as India’s own problems with China, has made the entire situation more complex. As if this were not enough, there is also the anti-West China-Russia bonhomie and India’s historical friendship with Russia.
Will decisions taken at the summit act as a catalyst of change and help to create a new world order? The world is in flux and has been for some time. The liberal order created by the victors of World War II, is broken, however nothing has so far replaced it. The multi-polar world that New Delhi and other countries want is still/ had put not by mistake/ far from reality. The US power may have declined, yet it still remains the world’s only superpower. China’s economy too may not be doing as well as it had earlier, but it still remains the second most important economy. Nor is India in a position yet to challenge China, and won’t be till another decade or more. But India has ambitious plans to make a difference starting with refashioning and broadening the G20 platform.
What does India bring to the G20?
“We have projected the G20 as no other country has done. India had reinvigorated it, broadened its character and scope and brought in the Global South to the G20 forum,… in a way India has reinvented the G20," says P S Raghavan, chairman of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB).
He admits that the political coherence today within the G20 has contracted thanks to the Ukraine war, but India has gone beyond the politics to make the point that unless the problems of the developing countries, hit by both the Ukraine war and the Covid pandemic are urgently and collectively addressed, there can be no real progress.
The developing nations are facing unprecedented economic hardship with shortages of food, fertilisers, supply chain disruptions, rising debt and inflation, and are falling way behind in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The broken systems have to be mended and New Delhi hopes to get the ball rolling.
India’s theme for the G20, adopted from the Upanishads, is “One Earth, One Family, One Future”―the emphasis is on the development of all living beings leading seamlessly to working together for climate change and sustainable development. India has already begun the process of persuading G20 nations to support its proposal to include the African Union (AU) in the group. If all the other members agree, which is likely, the AU will become a permanent member of the group.
“India brings an unprecedented level of inclusiveness to the G20 platform. Having engaged with more than 120 countries of the Global South, India hopes to broad base the premier grouping’s approach on key global economic issues by balancing the thinking of the major economies with the concerns of the rest,” says Syed Akbaruddin, India’s former envoy to the UN. India and China are both competing to champion the cause of the Global South. China is far ahead of India in both Africa and Latin America as of now.
“India is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and, as a developing country present in top global forums, a bridge to the Global South—though this is also a mantle claimed by Beijing—which heightens the competition between the two,” says Kugelman. “India is also a key balancing power, in that it enjoys good relations with both Russia and the West. New Delhi will hope this can help it manage tensions within the G20 and move the needle forward toward a meaningful joint statement at the end of the summit. But that will be easier said than done,” he adds.
An outcome document may be difficult because of differences over Ukraine, but as Ian Hall, professor of International Relations in Australia’s Griffith University says, “The real action in G20 will be the conversations on women empowerment, science, climate change, new technology, where conversations between G20 members and the Global South is a must.”
Green development, climate finance, inclusive resilient growth, accelerating progress on SDGs, technological transformation and digital public infrastructure, and women-led development, all of this will be on the table for discussion. India is offering its digital platform for developing countries to replicate and transform lives.
India hopes to act as a bridge between the developed and developing nations, and as Akbaruddin has said, India wants to balance the thinking of major economies with the concerns and needs of the Global South.
“Delhi is offering a neutral space much like Vienna did during the Cold War. Delhi has been encouraging this through the Raisina Dialogue as well,” says Hall. India’s promotion of the Global South resonates with several countries. It will give a platform to countries like Australia and Japan to take up conversations with the developing nations, adds Hall.
India has set the bar high for the G20. Much will depend on whether decisions taken at the summit can be translated meaningfully on the ground. If India can do that, it would have accomplished a great deal.