‘Diplomatic World Cup’: In G20 summit, India looks for moment in the sun

It’s the biggest diplomatic extravaganza India has hosted in 40 years. The Modi government is soaking in the limelight.

A government-employed driver eats a meal at the main venue of the G20 Summit, in New Delhi, India, Friday, Sept. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
A government-employed driver eats a meal at the main venue of the G20 Summit, in New Delhi, India, Friday, September 8, 2023 [Manish Swarup/AP Photo]

New Delhi, India – Roads have been cordoned off, schools and offices have been closed, street vendors have been ordered to clear out, and decorations, including large billboards with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s face on them, are plastered across the Indian capital.

After months of heady preparation, India will this weekend host the Group of 20 (G20) summit, the biggest gathering of world leaders in the country in 40 years, since New Delhi held the Non-Aligned Movement and the Commonwealth, both in 1983.

While the G20 has its agenda, which includes everything from climate finance and debt waivers to food security and public health, it is also an opportunity for the host country to bask in the limelight and demonstrate its diplomatic clout, according to analysts. The host is tasked with convincing other nations in the G20 to agree to a common agreement at the end of the summit, which serves as the group’s roadmap for the next year.

“The best summary I’ve heard is that hosting the G20 is like being the host of the diplomatic World Cup – it’s a big draw and a lot of publicity and media attention which you would not have otherwise,” said Hari Seshasayee, a visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi think tank, and an Asia-Latin America expert.

“There’s no way this government would have gotten so much attention from international leaders otherwise.”


How big are the G20 economies?
(Al Jazeera)

That was visible earlier this year in March when many more foreign ministers than usual attended the annual Raisina Dialogue, India’s flagship conference on geopolitics.

As host, “you have the space to talk to these big important countries that otherwise wouldn’t happen” to this extent, Seshasayee said. “India is important, of course. But it’s getting a lot more importance than it normally would … This government has squeezed as much as they could to get other nations to talk about the G20.”

But that focus on India as the president of the G20 is also potentially a double-edged sword. The G20 is a deeply divided group today with multiple powers and their competing agendas. Russia’s war in Ukraine since 2022 has in particular splintered the group, hampering its ability to find consensus on issues.

That has left India facing a potentially embarrassing prospect: A failure to put out a joint communique on Sunday would make this the first G20 summit to culminate without any agreement.

Indonesia, which helmed the previous presidency, also failed to build a consensus. But it managed to issue a joint declaration that stated that most members of the G20 criticised Russia’s war in Ukraine, but that some disagreed.

India wants “to showcase its clout and wants to show its rising power” and that “it has the ability to deliver” a consensus, said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.

Yet, it might struggle to do even what Indonesia managed: China and Russia have indicated that they will not settle for the wording of the 2022 declaration. And all indications suggest that the chief negotiators of G20 members, who met on the outskirts of New Delhi recently, have so far failed to agree to a common text.

While it’s hard to say what might happen at the actual summit starting Saturday, India’s “goal is to ensure that expectations are not sky high,” Kugelman said.

For now, the stance that New Delhi has taken is that it is the voice of the Global South. That was the theme that Amitabh Kant, India’s lead G20 negotiator, hammered on at the media briefing on Friday, ahead of the start of the summit.

The joint declaration at the end of the summit, he said, will have “the voice of the Global South and the developing countries. No document in the world would have such a strong voice for the Global South and the developing countries”.

Meanwhile, the Indian government is doing what it can to promote the country. It has held working group meetings in different parts of the country – not the norm in past presidencies – in the hope of drumming up tourism there as well as showcasing potential sites for investment and future conclaves.

The Modi government is widely expected to use domestic and global publicity for its political campaigns ahead of upcoming state and national elections. The G20 summit is usually held near the end of the host’s presidency – which is in November – but that would have clashed with state votes for which Modi usually campaigns heavily.

Yet, its ability to cite the summit as an example of India’s diplomatic heft has already taken a hit, with three leaders dropping out: Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. No previous G20 summit has had so many absentees among leaders.

Of the missing leaders, Xi’s absence will be felt the most – he leads the world’s second-largest economy and has never skipped a G20 summit in the past.

“This will be seen as a negative signal from China – both in bilateral and global relations,” said Ashok Kantha, a former secretary in India’s foreign ministry where he oversaw relations with 65 countries. “It sends a signal that relations are still in a downward spiral and shows China’s lack of commitment to G20,” added Kantha, also a former Indian ambassador to Beijing.

How well India can overcome that snub and iron out the differences within the group over the next two days will be the test of its diplomacy – and whether it can shine in its moment in the sun.

Source: Al Jazeera