When India assumed the G20 presidency on December 1, 2022, from Indonesia, with the theme of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam or ‘One Earth. One Family. One Future’, many around the world assumed it would be a fairly routine chairmanship, assigned as it was by rotation among the grouping’s members. It has proved to be anything but. As the chair of the G20, India has taken on the responsibility with breathtaking enthusiasm, hosting over 200 meetings in close to 60 cities across 32 workstreams. Wherever G20 officials have met in India, they have been greeted with gigantic billboards announcing their event in spruced-up cities, towns and resorts. The capital is getting yet another makeover as the September summit of world leaders looms. It is fair to say that no G20 chair has yet mounted as spectacular a chairmanship as India’s year-long extravaganza, showcasing it as a global player and even as “the mother of democracy”.
India has been hosting a vast range of meetings, workshops, seminars and dialogues on various topics related to the G20 agenda to demonstrate that it has a unique role to play in confronting and overcoming global challenges by using its long tradition of being inclusive and open to collaborating with all countries. At the same time, it has sought to position itself as the voice of the global south, serving in some ways as a successor to the largely otiose, if not entirely defunct, non-aligned movement and the G-77.
The list of topics the events have touched on span an impressive gamut of issues: global macroeconomic policies, infrastructure financing, sustainable finance, health finance, international taxation, financial sector reforms, anti-corruption, agriculture, culture, development, digital economy, employment, environment and climate, education, energy transition, health, trade and investment, tourism and more. These meetings provided a platform for exchanging views, sharing best practices and forging consensus on key issues among the G20 members and partners.
It must be said that among India’s principal achievements as chair of the G20 is the largely unprecedented one of taking the G20 closer to the public and making it truly a ‘People’s G20’. India’s various citizen engagement events and large-scale public participation activities throughout the year, such as University Connect, Jan Bhagidari, Hornbill Festival, monument illumination, sand art and social media campaigns, have brought attention to a body most Indians had not heard of before but which has suddenly assumed great significance in their lives. These activities have involved youth, civil society, think tanks and other key stakeholders in the G20 process and made them aware of the issues and opportunities covered by the G20. Offering G20 delegates and guests a glimpse of India’s rich cultural heritage and providing them with a unique Indian experience through various cultural events, exhibitions, performances and cuisines has also helped to showcase its diversity, vibrancy and hospitality to the world. The leveraging of soft power assets has increasingly been an Indian strength, and the government has used yoga, ayurveda, Bollywood and cricket to promote its image and brand as a global leader.
India has pushed a few specific schemes to leave its imprint on the G20, creating two new working groups on disaster risk reduction and startups, projecting an international research initiative on millets and “other ancient grains”, as well as supporting making the African Union a permanent member. Its ideas on issues like digital public infrastructure and “green development”, as well as proposals to reform multilateral development banks and promote “resilient, inclusive and accelerated growth”, will feature in the final summit declaration. India wants to see the G20 establish itself as a forum for “global public good” rather than just a macroeconomic grouping. A seven-year plan to promote the sustainable development goals has already been agreed on by G20 finance ministers.
India hopes to lead the G20’s New Delhi summit with a vision of healing, harmony and hope in the post-pandemic world. But its chairmanship is not without its challenges. Its own internal turmoil, with Manipur burning and communal flare-ups in Haryana’s Nuh and Gurugram districts grabbing the headlines, require healing and harmony, too, and foreign delegates cannot be unaware of the contradictions between the government’s preaching of vasudhaiva kutumbakam abroad and its weaponising of identity politics at home. The sooner India gets its own internal house in order, the better for its global credibility.
But most of the major issues that India is facing in the run-up to the summit have been sparked by the twin catastrophes of the Covid pandemic and the Ukraine crisis, which have elevated global debt levels to new heights, beyond the stress nations were already facing before the pandemic. Almost 70 countries are at risk of debt distress, which could hamper their ability to invest in health, education, infrastructure and social protection. Managing the global debt crisis and ensuring a sustainable and inclusive recovery from the pandemic is arguably one of the principal responsibilities of the G20. India will have to work with G20 members and partners to find ways to enhance debt transparency, sustainability and relief, as well as to mobilise resources for supporting the most vulnerable countries and people. But getting rich and poor countries to agree on the way forward has not been easy, and what formula emerges from the summit remains to be seen.
Despite reassuring press briefings by capable officials, the truth is that India has not found it easy to balance the interests and perspectives of diverse G20 members and partners on key issues. The G20 is a diverse and heterogeneous group of countries, with different levels of development, political systems, economic models and cultural values. This makes it challenging to reach consensus on some of the contentious issues that the G20 agenda covers, such as climate change, trade, taxation, digital economy, health and development. Above all, finding an acceptable formula on the Ukraine war, which Indonesia was able to pull off at the Bali summit, has proved elusive so far.
Addressing the Ukraine conflict and its implications for global peace and stability has perhaps been the most intractable challenge of all. The ongoing war in Ukraine poses a serious threat to regional and global security, as well as to the global economy. It has caused immense human suffering, disrupted energy supplies, increased food insecurity, heightened financial risks and strained diplomatic relations. India has sought to leverage its historical friendship with Russia, as well as its strategic partnership with the US and other countries, to bring a more isolated Moscow to the discussion table at the G20 meetings. India could also have used this platform to strategise for peace and a path toward reconciliation in Ukraine, as much as possible. So far an agreed joint statement has not looked possible, with Russia predictably resisting any reference to it, the western members determined to condemn it and China arguing that geopolitical issues have no place at the G20.
India has attempted to play a bridging role between the developed and developing countries, as well as between the major powers and emerging economies, to ensure that the G20 outcomes are fair, balanced and acceptable to all. It has been a high-wire trapeze act and it is only when the agreed summit declaration emerges that the world will finally judge if India has pulled it off―or fallen off the tightrope.
The writer is member of the Lok Sabha.