G20 extravaganza to bolster India's image and help Modi in elections, experts say

India is portraying itself as a rising geopolitical force

Billboards featuring Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are prominently displayed all over New Delhi for the G20 summit. AP
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The G20 Leaders’ Summit will help India to boost its image on the world stage and help Prime Minister Narendra Modi seek a third term in next year’s national elections, political experts said.

India assumed the year-long rotational presidency of the Group of Twenty last year.

After dozens of diplomatic events held in various parts of the country throughout this year, New Delhi is now hosting the Leaders’ Summit on September 9 and 10.

“For a long time, there were a lot of questions about India’s global posture and whether it is able to take global leadership," Harsh Pant, vice president of studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, told The National. "The G20 presidency has allowed India to underscore its commitment to global governance and set the agenda by focusing on the Global South.”

More than four dozen heads of states, including US President Joe Biden, and leaders of international organisations will gather in New Delhi over the weekend to deliberate on global issues such as the economy, financial stability, climate change mitigation and sustainable development.

The capital is ready to dazzle delegates with displays of vibrant colours and lights.

Roads have been cleaned, trees and plants manicured, public places painted and ubiquitous slums concealed behind green screens to send a message of prosperity and development.

Life-size posters of Mr Modi beaming from ear to ear have been put up across the city – at roundabouts, metro stations, roads, markets, and government buildings – welcoming the dignitaries.

The promotional blitzkrieg might seem over the top given the country is hosting the event as part of a rotational presidency of the forum of 19 nations and the EU.

Mr Modi, however, has justified the extravagant pageantry, saying it is the moment for the world to experience the diversity of the country, which has a population of 1.4 billion.

“It is one thing to hear about India’s demography, democracy, diversity, and development from someone else. It is totally different to experience them first- hand. I am sure our G20 delegates would vouch for this,” Mr Modi wrote in an article in the Indian Express daily on Thursday.

Since New Delhi took over the baton from Bali last year, it has organised more than 200 events across the country, including at historical monuments, to display the country’s diverse heritage, food and culture to 100,000 foreign representatives from participating nations.

His government has reportedly spent more than $100 million in organising these events.

Biden departs for G20 summit in India

Biden departs for G20 summit in India

But experts say the extravaganza is fitting because the government is using the moment to be seen as a “global leader” at a time when the West is engaged in a direct confrontation with Russia and simmering tensions with China.

New Delhi has been trying to portray itself as a rising geopolitical force through its independent foreign policy on major geopolitical crises such as the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, where India has refused to toe the West’s line against Moscow while supporting the US to curb China’s influence in the Asia Pacific region.

It has also tried to position itself as a “voice of the Global South”, a term used to refer to developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

“There is a leadership vacuum, no multilateral institution is working, lots of fragmentation in global order due to Ukraine-Russia war and polarisation. India has recognised that this moment might require it to be more visible on the global firmament,” Mr Pant said.

India’s efforts to be the voice of the Global South can be understood from the fact that it has pushed for the inclusion of the African Union, a group of 55 African nations, in the forum for their wider representation.

New Delhi had inserted the AU membership proposal in its revised draft of the G20 Leaders’ Declaration, a joint statement based on the discussions after every summit summarising the commitments and resolving issues.

The declaration, to be called the Delhi Declaration, is expected to be announced during the summit.

Some experts say the move will bolster Mr Modi’s image on the world stage.

“This will probably be India’s biggest achievement, making G20 into G21. This is the next growth area in the world and gels well with India’s Global South initiative. This will become the biggest organisation both in the developing and the developed countries,” Anil Trigunayat, a former Indian ambassador, told The National.

But the biggest test for New Delhi at the weekend event will be to bring a consensus among bloc members on the Russia-Ukraine war with expectations that western nations and their allies, such as Australia and Japan, will use the platform to lambast Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.

At the summit in Bali, the leaders declared that the conflict was the cause of global economic problems, including inflation, and disruption of food supply chains.

Both Russia and China agreed to the paragraphs but withdrew their support this year, saying that the G20 was not the right platform to discuss security issues – with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping deciding to give the event in New Delhi a miss.

New Delhi has so far failed to foster consensus for a joint communique from previous G20 meetings, including the March meeting of foreign ministers of the member states in New Delhi.

“There could be health reasons for Xi’s absence,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, professor in Chinese studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“Secondly, if Putin is not attending and Xi attends, then he would be the target of the rest of the members on the conflict, which is a sticking point, and it is a worst-case scenario for Chinese foreign policy. They have good relations with Russia but no direct involvement in Ukraine so far,” he said.

But whether Mr Modi will manage to unite the G20 members on issues such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict, experts say the right-wing Hindu leader will use the event to boost his image domestically ahead of national elections next year.

Domestically, Mr Modi’s government has been projecting the diplomatic event as a result of India’s growing global power during his nine-year rule and a sign that New Delhi will play a major role on the world stage in the near future.

“This has shown Indians that the country can host an event of this magnitude and made Indians more aware of India’s new role in the global order. This would be Mr Modi’s legacy,” Mr Pant said.

“While elections are a long way off, perhaps many people would remember Modi’s efforts in putting India on the global map and certainly, it will affect the course of the electoral process.”

Updated: October 31, 2023, 10:13 AM