How India has emerged as leading voice of developing world

India is all set to announce its arrival on global stage with G20 summit

34-Prime-Minister-Narendra-Modi Centre of attraction: Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inauguration of the Bharat Mandapam, which hosts the G20 summit | PIB

The last time when half the globe flocked to Delhi, the world was still monochrome. In March 1983, India welcomed leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement to the group’s seventh summit, the first major multilateral meeting hosted by the country. It came at a geopolitically crucial time and was not without its share of controversies. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat threatened to leave the summit midway because he felt slighted after being asked to address the gathering only after the leader of the Jordanian delegation. Cuban president Fidel Castro hugged prime minister Indira Gandhi while handing over the conference gavel and not everyone in India took it in the right spirit. On more substantive issues, the Iran-Iraq war was threatening to upend the Middle East. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and India’s neighbourhood emerged as a key theatre of the Cold War. Interestingly, 1983 was also the year India won the cricket World Cup for the first time.

The emerging India moment is very much tied to Modi’s rise as a global leader, especially in the post Covid era. India’s recovery from the pandemic and the vaccine diplomacy that was aimed to win hearts helped cement Modi’s image globally.
With just a few days to go before President Xi Jinping travels to India for the G20 summit, China released a map showing Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as part of its territory, eliciting a “strong protest” from India.

Forty years later, India has lost enthusiasm for non-alignment, but not for global diplomacy and cricket. It is all set to host the latest edition of the World Cup and also the G20, a forum for strategic economic communication between the developed and developing countries. The Ukraine crisis will be a major talking point during the summit and the absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin will not go unnoticed.

India has emerged as a leading voice of the Global South, and it is poised to become the third largest economy in the world by 2030, clearly announcing its arrival on the global stage. And the G20 summit, which will be held on September 9 and 10 at the Bharat Mandapam convention centre in Delhi, will be a tangible demonstration of India’s elevated status. Interestingly, the summit has a come at a time India displayed its scientific prowess by becoming the first country to land on the south pole of the moon. It is also the only non-permanent member of the UN Security Council to have conquered the moon, and that, too, on a shoe-string budget of Rs 615 crore. (The Bharat Mandapam complex cost around Rs 2,700 crore). The moon mission is among the key elements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of India being a vishwa guru (a teacher to the world). And its timing is unlikely to be a coincidence.

“The presidency of G20 is in many ways a coming-of-age moment for India,’’ said Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. Diplomatically, 2023 has been quite a busy year for India, with a breathless calendar of engagements. Apart from the G20 presidency, India was also the chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. New Delhi hosted the Quad foreign ministers’ summit in March close on heels of the G20 foreign ministers’ summit. There have been hectic trade negotiations for free trade agreements with Canada, Israel and the European Union among other countries. India hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as chief guest of the Republic Day celebrations and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni for a bilateral summit. Modi undertook successful visits to the US, France, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Greece, Egypt and the UAE. A summit with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is expected after the G20 meeting.

The world is taking note of India’s rising status. “You look at the simple example of India’s candidature to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. We had an extremely strong case, even back in 2013. But now we will be a shoo-in whenever the doors open because of our credibility, economic strength, the manner in which we dealt with the Ukraine crisis and the large scale development partnerships we have created with the Global South,” said T.S. Tirumurti, India’s former permanent representative to the UN. “Earlier, if we were knocking on the doors to be let in, now we will certainly be there when they open.”

BRICS-SUMMIT/CHINA-INDIA Leading from the front: Narendra Modi with other leaders at the BRICS summit in South Africa. (From left) Brazil President Lula da Silva, President Xi Jinping of China, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov | Reuters

The emerging India moment is very much tied to Modi’s rise as a global leader, especially in the post Covid era. India’s recovery from the pandemic and the vaccine diplomacy that was aimed to win hearts helped cement Modi’s image globally. Despite India’s refusal to toe the anti-Russia line on the Ukraine crisis, Modi’s popularity remains undiminished in the west, especially in the United States. His state visit to the US in June, headlined by a jet engine deal and a blue-print for the future together, has taken bilateral ties to the next level. Russia, too, has kept up the relationship, although Putin has chosen to skip the G20 summit. “We have reasserted our independent decision-making after Ukraine. We have expanded our strategic space,” said Tirumurti. “Some people compare it with Nehru’s NAM, but NAM was non-alignment with the two sides of the Cold War. Today, India is multi-aligning with various sides to achieve our ends. The global landscape has indeed changed and so have our policies.”

One of the key missions of the G20 is to showcase India’s diplomatic heft. Modi, for instance, is using the presidency to amplify the voice of the Global South. His campaign for the inclusion of the African Union in the G20 is a step in this direction. It remains to be seen whether India will succeed, but it will certainly be remembered as being on the right side of history. The expansion of India’s footprint in Africa has been one of Modi’s pet projects.

The G20 summit is also the key to the Modi government’s initiative to remodel foreign policy into an aam aadmi issue just in time for the Lok Sabha elections. “The prime minister has ensured that the G20 event would not remain confined to some government departments. Instead, there is enormous public participation or jan bhagidari,’’ said Dr Vijay Chauthaiwale, in-charge of the BJP’s department of foreign affairs.

1500464146 Going global: People practise yoga to welcome the International Day of Yoga at Times Square, New York City | Getty Images

Modi may have used the same playbook as his predecessors, but he has chosen to change the language of Indian diplomacy in more ways than one. From the logo that depicts a lotus to the motto that says vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family) and the venue called Bharat Mandapam, everything associated with the G20 summit is quite a reflection of Modi’s vision and philosophy for India’s diplomacy. Just like the new Parliament building, the renaming of the Rajpath and the revision of the Indian Penal Code, it signals a shift from India to Bharat.

And it all began with a resolution to push for a yoga day at the UN in 2014. “It was a big win,’’ said retired diplomat Syed Akbaruddin, who was serving at India’s permanent mission to the UN at that time. “Earlier, we had championed the international day of non-violence. But yoga is not part of the traditional diplomatic language. It is off the beaten track.”

Akbar’s video of calling it a day at the UN with a namaste―which went viral―is an example of an Indian diplomat opting to assert his identity. It has now become quite the way diplomacy is articulated. In his book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar explains how Indians “must rely on their own traditions to equip them in facing a tumultuous world. That is certainly possible in an India that is now more Bharat.” It is this shift that India’s presidency of the G20 embodies. This has been reflected even in the selection of meeting venues. By picking Srinagar for a tourism meeting, India scored a key diplomatic win. But whether it is Hampi or Mahabalipuram, the idea is to showcase an India with its spiritual, religious and myth-wrapped identity.

INDIA-CHINA-DIPLOMACY-DEFENCE Trouble next door: An Indian soldier with a rocket launcher near Pankang Teng Tso Lake in tawang district, Arunachal Pradesh. China remains quite a big hurdle in India’s march forward | AFP

The shift is also manifested in India’s new-found assertiveness. The Ukraine crisis, for instance, gave Jaishankar a chance to frame the hypocrisy of the west in terms of economy. “Europe has managed to reduce its import [of Russian energy] while doing it in a manner that is comfortable. If at [a per capita income] of €60,000 you are so caring about your population, I have a population at $2,000. I also need energy, and I am not in a position to pay high prices for oil,’’ he said in an interview in January.

“I certainly sense a change in tone in India’s diplomacy,’’ said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, Washington, D.C. “There is a level of confidence and assertiveness that was lacking in the pre-Modi era. It is a more subdued version of China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy; it is pursued assertively, rather than aggressively. Indian officials are responding robustly and defiantly to foreign criticism at a level of intensity not seen in the past.”

Despite the confidence and enhanced stature in the world, there are challenges. China remains quite a big hurdle in India’s march forward. With just a few days to go before President Xi Jinping travels to India for the summit, China released a map showing Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as part of its territory, eliciting a “strong protest” from India. It has come at a time when both countries are trying to normalise the tense situation prevailing along the Line of Actual Control.

“Foreign policy is determined by economic clout,’’ said Kapil Sibal, Rajya Sabha MP and a member of the parliamentary committee on external affairs. “Optics [alone] will not work. China has occupied our territory and has deep economic ties with our neighbourhood.” India has recently upped its spending in the neighbourhood, realising that the allure of economics binds deeper than cultural links. India’s lines of credit extended to the immediate neighbourhood have increased from $3 billion in 2014 to around $15 billion in 2022. China, however, still outspends India considerably. As Modi and Xi get ready to meet each other on the sidelines of the G20―after their conversation at the BRICS summit in South Africa―a deescalation is possible, but the friction is unlikely to go away completely.

Many more immediate challenges, meanwhile, remain for Modi and his team. Agreeing on a joint communique at the end of the summit will prove to be extremely difficult in the prevailing geopolitical climate. The Ukraine crisis could prove to be a major stumbling block. Shifting the focus to the Global South and the need to expand development could prove to be a common point. Still, getting everyone on the same page may not be easy and a divided summit will take the sheen off the event. “For posterity,” said Akbaruddin, “We need to get a joint document.”