New Delhi, India – India is a country of 1.4 billion people. But the only face you see everywhere in the capital these days, after two days of hosting world leaders for the Group of 20 (G20) summit, is that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
You see him not only at the airport and at the grand venue that was recently constructed to host the summit, but on practically every road, every few feet. Sometimes, two car lengths, at most. It’s a one-man show.
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Having spent many of my growing and working years in New Delhi, the changes in the city for this mega event stand out.
Schools and offices were shut for the summit, roads blocked for so-called VIP movement. Sometimes you had to wait 15 minutes to cross a street as police cars barricaded them.
Vendors, otherwise ubiquitous on Indian streets and selling everything from fruits and vegetables to clothes, shoes and household items, were missing the past few days. They need a daily income from their sales to survive – but clearly don’t figure in the Modi government’s agenda to push India as the voice of the long-suffering Global South.
On some streets, there aren’t even the stray dogs that are a staple of all neighbourhoods. They, too, were rounded up.
But if Modi was the hero of the diplomatic extravaganza, monkeys were the designated menace. Life-sized cut-outs of langurs have been put up to scare the monkeys that can run rampage in Central Delhi, which hosts most major embassies and hotels, and is close to the summit venue.
The relatively heavy rain cooled temperatures in the capital but the partly flooded roads also showed that you may spruce up the city but until you really fix the infrastructure, things are not really going to change.
It’s at the venue, however, that the deep stamp of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – which will stand for national elections next year – was most visible.
The old exhibition halls at Pragati Maidan – which means “field of progress” in Hindi and previously hosted anything and everything from international trade fairs to book fairs and auto shows – have been replaced with a grand new convention centre called the Bharat Mandapam. It’s a Sanskrit name, where Bharat refers to India, while a mandapam is the front porch of a Hindu temple.
Just with that name, the exhibition ground moves away from its secular, humdrum past.
The grounds are supposed to be the biggest exhibition space in the country. And as the official information tells you, there are more seats than the Sydney Opera House. But it’s next to one of the busiest roads in the city and near the Supreme Court of India, so it’s not really easy to get that many people to visit in one go anyway.
Unless the government pulls out all the stops to do just that.
The cavernous, warehouse-like halls have barren grey walls, currently hidden behind large G20 billboards and video clips of the different cultural trips the delegates and their spouses have undertaken in the past year.
The billboards are covered with images of the lotus flower. That is India’s national flower but it is also the BJP’s election symbol. And it is everywhere. Even in the official logo of the G20.
The video clips playing on the walls tell a story too. They show glimpses of Hampi – a UNESCO World Heritage site which was also the capital of a 14th-century Hindu empire – of Khajuraho temples and of the Nathdwara temple dedicated to the Hindu god Krishna’s avatar.
What you don’t see in the videos is also telling. You don’t see the Jama Masjid, one of the most iconic sites in the capital. I didn’t spot any churches. The Taj Mahal, India’s most famous landmark and heritage site, built by the Mughal dynasty that is reviled by the rulers of today, gets only a photo on one of the walls. The Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of Sikhs in India, gets a tiny video clip.
The WiFi, good at the start, dropped during the first day as more users logged on and set up hotspots. The support staff was super prompt in trying to fix the wavering network, although not always successfully.
Then there was the language. In the media briefing ahead of the summit, and in Modi’s speeches, India was repeatedly described as the world’s largest democracy, the voice of the Global South. The theme of the summit was one earth, one family, one future.
But that jars with the reality we know on the ground where think tanks, academics and media groups are all being muzzled. Not to mention the numerous attacks on minority communities, including an attack on a mosque in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of the Indian capital, where an imam was killed last month.
It also belies the tough behind-the-scenes diplomacy where there were efforts to divide the room into the Global South and the rest of the world, people familiar with the matter told me. Not all developing nations fell in line with that line, though, even as the G7 members were berated on various accounts. Speaking of divisions, China and Russia, unsurprisingly, opposed the United States’s move to host the G20 in 2026.
Brazil, as next year’s host of the G20, will have its work cut out to iron out those creases.
I had a lot of time on hand to look at and think about the visuals on display. That’s because the Indian government, unlike past summits including the recent G7 in Japan, has not allowed anyone but the state media into the conference rooms where leaders speak.
The US White House press corps was furious about not being allowed into either the bilateral meetings – as is the norm for them – or summit talks. (Some members were also upset when they were not allowed to take their water bottles inside.)
All we got on the first morning of the summit was a few minutes of Modi’s opening speech. It was in such chaste Hindi (and the English translation didn’t come until an hour later) that no one really understood that the African Union had been admitted into the G20. A big moment, nevertheless.
As one member of my tribe said in absolute frustration: “Can anyone tell me why I’m here?”
Maybe for the food. The food was plentiful – vegetarian offerings from across the country although I’d have wanted some of the millets the country has been pushing instead of the deep-fried, and delicious, cocktail samosas and kachoris.
A first for me was the cans of water, which felt a bit odd seeing the whole idea at the summit of creating an environmentally sustainable life. And while the yam kebab was yummy, a mutton galouti kebab is a mutton galouti kebab – and it is unparalleled.
I cannot leave out the shopping. The crafts bazaar has stalls from different states selling wares as wide-ranging as coffee from Nagaland and beaded earrings from Arunachal Pradesh to temple saris from Tamil Nadu and stunning, and huge, Buddha statues.
There was something for every price point and with the shops shut for parts of the city because of the summit, I made sure I got my fix there.