In 2003, when late prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was invited for G7 summit as a guest, there was much satisfaction and excitement in India. Excitement because it was the first time that India got an invite. Satisfaction as it indicated that India was on the right path in the international power circuit. Though not yet on the high table of the global affairs an invite to G7 was seen as endorsement by the rich and powerful that India mattered.
This was at a time when the emerging markets of the world – India, Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa were the toast of the international community, as the economies of these nations were poised to take off in a major way. This was nearly two decades ago much before the 2008 financial crisis or the current covid – induced debilitating lockdown that has wracked the world economy.
The world in 2022 looks very different from what it did at the time India first participated as an invitee to the G7 summit, which then was called G8 as Russia was also part of it but sent out after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.
G7, as is well known is an exclusive club of the world’s richest countries and naturally represents their interests and their world view. But with the centre of economic activity moving to Asia, the G7s influence became somewhat curtailed. In fact after the US invasion of Iraq there was a falling out between France and Germany and the US.
But now thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe has closed ranks behind President Joe Biden. With Angela Merkel no longer there to assert Germany’s strategic autonomy, which would have been supported by France’s Emmanuel Macron, the G7 has become more a rubber stamp for the Biden administration.
So it is not surprising that the recent summit in the Bavarian Alps focussed largely on Ukraine and Russia. With wide-ranging sanctions against Moscow already in place, the G7 leaders and scraped the bottom of the barrel to announce fresh sanctions against Moscow and is mulling over putting a global cap on Russian oil exports.
The concerned ministries of all the seven member states – US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the UK – are being instructed to explore ways implement this decision. The task is complicated and would take time to implement, but the US and its allies are bent on making Russian President Vladimir Putin pay for his invasion of Ukraine.
India has become a regular invitee, during his two terms in office former prime minister Manmohan Singh attended five such summits, while Prime Minister Modi has so far been to three, including the latest in Germany.
Ordinary Indians are thrilled to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi rub shoulders with the high and mighty…from Biden, to Macron to Johnson and the rest. Being a guest at the forum dominated by the US and western political leaders is regarded as an honour by the general public. But being an invitee is very different from being a member of the G7.
`` Membership may or may not happen in the immediate future, but in the meantime we can do with the privilege of being a permanent invitee,’’ an analyst who did not wish to be identified explains. The fact that China is not an invitee is another selling point for India.
Opinion is divided whether attending these high profile dos are merely symbolic or mean something more. Some critics believe that the G7 itself has outlived its usefulness. Others see India playing an important role as a link between the industrialized countries and the developing world.
``Our regular participation at the G7 summits points to increasing acceptance and recognition that India needs to be a part of any and every sustained effort to find solutions to solve global challenges,” foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra said at a briefing ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit to Germany.
``We gain in being recognised as a country whose views need to be listened to and whose presence adds to the weight of the group to which it is invited. It adds to India’s international profile. Participation in G7 meeting balances that in BRICS or SCO summits. Such participation gives us insights into thinking of major countries on current issues of international concern,’’ says former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.
Yes, India is part of the conversation on both sides of the new ideological divide which has China and Russia as well as several countries like Iran on one side and the industrialized western powers on the other. The US formulation now is no longer about the ideological divide between capitalism and Communism that dominated the Cold War era, but authoritarian governments versus democratic nations of the world.
Former diplomat Ashok Sajjanhar echoed Kwatra’s views saying. ``India's presence and voice at the high table is important. Countries listen to India with seriousness and respect. No major global issues like climate change, terrorism, economic recovery, health etc can be resolved without having India on board.” He went on to add : ``In addition to participating in and contributing to final outcomes of the global and inter-governmental conferences, PM Modi connects with world leaders bilaterally and takes bilateral and plurilateral partnership forward.’’
Gurjit Singh, India’s former ambassador to Germany believes that at a time when the world is riven by faction, New Delhi is in a unique position to straddle both sides of the divide and work towards a multi-polar world. He regards BRICS as a Chinese-led club, while G7 remains a forum dominated by the US. Singh says that G20 will be the platform of the future, where interests of the majority of the countries including the global south is accommodated. India hosts the G20 next year.
On the other side of the spectrum we have those like analyst and former diplomat P.Stopdan, who believes that the invite to G7 is primarily to rope in India to the western camp. He did not mince his words when asked about India’s invite to the summit. `` It is quite evident. To sever ties with Russia and to undermine BRICS. They want us to be like Australia. For India it gives us a sense of greatness, a grandeur of delusion but substantially little else.’’
Can India be the bridge between the US-led western alliance which thanks to Russian action has grown stronger by the day and the cause of the developing world that New Delhi had traditionally championed? It will be a tightrope walk, but Indian diplomacy is adept in doing so. With the world now in a flux what emerges finally remains uncertain.
India is also changing, and no longer the economy driven emerging power that it was under Manmohan Singh. Since 2014, India is much more nationalistic, and this is reflective in international affairs. So can an nationalistic India be comfortable with a club dominated by one power - the United States – despite excellent ties with Washington.
While India and the US are in sync when it comes to checkmating China, there are differences on several issues. And increasingly as India’s human rights record is coming into focus, and activists as well as progressives within the Democratic party ask Joe Biden to take up thorny issues of freedom and fundamental rights of citizens in a democracy, friction is inevitable.
Besides, India’s self-interest is not aligned to the US on several counts. India is for a multilateral world order not one dominated either by the US or China. So in various issues India and the US will be on opposite sides of the fence. The US and the west have so far not been able to persuade New Delhi to toe their line on Russia.
At the same time, buying Russian oil, ban on export of wheat announced earlier are not something the US is happy about. But India naturally will look to its self-interest as do all nations. A case in point is about India and South Africa’s request for a TRIPS waiver for production of covid vaccines at the WTO.
The industrialised nations, despite grand announcements at the G7 and other forums to provide vaccines to countries in Asia and Africa have refused to go along with the request, possibly because of the strong pharmaceutical lobby in these countries. The bottom line is that the developed world is united in looking after its own interests.
Nevertheless it helps India to be seen in sync with the US, the world’s only superpower. But the reality of India’s strategic policy calls for New Delhi to be assertive for not just its own people but for the have-nots of the developing world.