Hijacking of -G-20 - Nirendra Modi boosted his image, but summit looks set to achieve little else

What is the point of the G20, the group of 19 countries plus the EU, whose annual summit is being held in Delhi? It’s a question that gets harder to answer with each passing year. As ever, there was no shortage of global problems to discuss: food security, debt relief, the climate crisis, disease, banking reforms and digital infrastructure, to name a few. The difficulty was the apparent chronic lack of agreed, substantive and credible action to tackle them.

One explanation is that the G20 is a disparate group whose membership is based on relative economic heft rather than, say, shared ideas, beliefs or experience. When discussing endemic hunger, for example, it’s possible Ethiopia (not a member) has a deeper understanding of the issues than Canada (a member). A lack of tangible outcomes and follow-through is linked to the fact the G20 has no permanent secretariat. It is, in effect, the sum of its summits, which too often turn into interesting but ineffectual talking shops.

Summit hosts tend to hijack these one-off occasions to showcase their countries and impress domestic audiences. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, is no exception. He has used the event to advertise what he sees as India’s leadership role as the “voice of the global south”. The world, Modi warned, was suffering a “crisis of trust”. His blatant use of the summit to boost his personal image and his chances in next year’s Indian elections showed how sadly true that is.

Modi was adamant that geopolitical issues, meaning Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, should not be allowed to distract attention from the wider G20 agenda. He refused to invite Ukraine to attend. Yet this approach was never going to work, given that key global south issues, such as the price and availability of grain, are directly and negatively affected by the war. Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s ports, and its refusal to renew a UN-brokered export pact, most hurt the countries Modi most wants to help. But as expected, the summit’s “consensus” declaration failed to condemn Russia’s invasion or its war crimes.

Modi’s efforts to concentrate on developing world problems was further undermined by a summit boycott by China’s president, Xi Jinping. It appears Xi had no desire to meet Modi or the US president, Joe Biden, both of whom he considers geopolitical rivals and potential foes. Biden used his absence to further strengthen US-India defence ties in talks with Modi. Xi’s snub was irresponsible and self-defeating, given China’s economic might and its huge overseas lending.

By insisting on making Ukraine a priority in his summit talks, Rishi Sunak exploited another absence – that of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. But the prime minister’s political focus swiftly shifted to a free trade deal with India. Modi reportedly wants a “quickie” pre-election agreement. Sunak needs a deal, too, so he can pretend Brexit is working. But the terms and scope will require a lot more work if, as with other trade deals, Britain is not to be sold short again.

Like Biden, Sunak also faces renewed questions about his courting of an authoritarian leader whose attachment to open government and key principles such as free speech and a free press appears shaky at best. Modi’s “strongman” style, Hindu majoritarian bias and disregard for human rights in Kashmir and Manipur are an embarrassment for any democratic country that wants to do business with India.

The decision to invite the African Union to become a permanent G20 member may emerge as this summit’s most substantive achievement. Yet enlarging the group could make it even more unwieldy and unfocused. Next up after India are Brazil and South Africa, in 2024 and 2025 respectively. Their presidencies may be make or break for the G21.This [G20] summit in Delhi has certainly been overshadowed by Prime Minister Modi and by India. We have talked about a lot of criticism he [Modi] has attracted from the opposition and generally from critics that he’s using this event as almost a way to start campaigning early for elections which are likely to be held in about eight or nine months,” CNBC’s Martin Soong summed up the G20 summit held in New Delhi earlier this month.

“He [Modi] has made a real spectacle of G20. We’ve been talking about how in the streets of Delhi, every few meters or so, there are posters, hundreds or thousands of them advertising G20 [summit] with Modi’s face on them,” Soong said while reporting live from the Indian capital. Soong wasn’t alone. Most independent media shared his opinion.

The summit, which capped India’s presidency of the Group of 20 richest economies of the world, was a moment of pride for Delhi. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Flush from India’s successful lunar landing, Modi saw the G20 extravaganza as symbolic of his country’s profile as a rising geopolitical force. The Modi administration tried to cast India’s charm and dazzle the G20 leaders with the extravagant pageantry, making them feel like royalty.

The guests were served lavish feasts in gold and silver tableware at the G20 gala dinner. But behind this grandiosity lies the grim reality that India is ranked 107 out of 121 countries on Global Hunger Index. This drew scornful criticism from opposition leaders and rights activists. “Modi has got Trump disease - Silver plates and gold utensils for G20 dinner! Megalomaniac forgets India ranks 107th out of the 121 countries in Global Hunger Index, worse than Pakistan, Bangladesh & Nepal,” wrote Ashok Swain, Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University. Congress leader Dr. Ragini Nayak also disparaged Modi. “‘Fakirs’ are serving G20 guests a feast in gold and silver utensils.” India is the world’s fifth largest economy with a GDP of $3.4 trillion, but in terms of GDP per capita, it is ranked 42. No wonder it is ranked 126th on the World Happiness Report.

Economic inequality in India is more pronounced than anywhere else in the world. Less than 5% of the population owns more than 60% of the wealth in a country which is still home to the world’s highest number of poor people (228.9 million). As many as 750 big and small slums in its capital city alone belie India’s portrayal as an affluent economic powerhouse which would soon overtake rival China. The Modi government did not want the G20 leaders to see these shanties in sharp contrast to the plush bungalows in the posh Delhi uptown. “At least 25 shantytowns and multiple night shelters for the homeless were razed to the ground, resulting in the displacement of nearly 300,000 people,” says a report by the Concerned Citizens Collective, a rights activist group. And the slums they couldn’t or didn’t tear down were covered with giant green curtains, hiding away hundreds of thousands of slum-dwellers from the rich guests. “Modi has virtually jailed Delhi’s poor people behind green curtains so the G20 leaders could not see them,” wrote Prof. Ashok Swain. Joining the chorus, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said: “There is no need to hide India’s reality from our guests.”

In the run-up to the summit, video clips also went viral on social media showing Delhi’s municipal workers rounding up stray dogs from the streets. “For G20, dogs are dragged by the neck, beaten, denied food and water, tied up and locked in cages,” wrote Supriya Shrinate, Chairperson Social Media and Digital Platforms of Congress. “Those who cruelly treat voiceless animals are cruel. Whom are we impressing by doing so?” The poor slum-dwellers said they were simply rubbed out, much like the stray dogs as part of the extravagant Delhi makeover project. A whopping ₹41,000 crore were spent on hosting the event. “Is there any data to show the G20 summit either directly or indirectly help reduce poverty, unemployment, hunger, malnutrition in India? If not, then why spend ₹4100 crore on an event,” writes Sujit Nair, Co-Founder & Managing Editor HW News Network.

According to critics, the event could have been held at a much lower cost because India faces a much more daunting struggle of ending endemic poverty. Opposition leaders claimed that Modi blatantly used the one-off occasion to boost his personal image and impress domestic audiences. Saket Gokhale, a prominent leader from Trinamool Congress, claimed that the original budget of ₹990 crore skyrocketed to ₹4,100 crore. And this rise was for the purpose of boosting Modi’s public image ahead of next year’s elections. The Associated Press news agency reported, “Life-size posters of 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. A billboard in New Delhi projects Modi as the most popular among world leaders.” The agency further stated that the “promotional blitzkrieg might seem over the top” given India is hosting the summit as part of a rotational presidency of G20. Modi sought to justify this self-aggrandizement, saying it is the moment for the world to experience the diversity of India.

But opposition leaders saw Modi’s personal ambitions behind the outsized advertising campaign because he has frequently used the optics of Delhi’s geopolitical influence and foreign policy triumphs to strengthen his power. Modi used this summit to market his image and elevate BJP’s prospects ahead of the elections. The G20 logo was also cleverly crafted by his PR team. Using the colours of India’s flag, the logo juxtaposed earth with lotus which, not so coincidently, happens to be the election symbol of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

The G20 summit has been hailed as a “diplomatic triumph” for India because it defied odds and sprang up a joint communiqué by brokering a consensus on “acceptable language” to refer to the war in Ukraine. However, the “summit could not produce any concrete and substantial decisions, commitments, pledges from G20 on any of the pressing global challenges, from climate change to debt,” says Patryk Kugiel, a senior analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw. “It makes the forum ineffective, even useless.” The gathering also failed to push Russia to revive the stalled Black Sea grain initiative.

But how did India manage to convince the US and its Western allies to acquiesce to the joint communiqué which their proxy in Ukraine called “nothing to be proud of” because it omitted words from last year’s statement that condemned “Russian aggression against Ukraine? Was it a “climbdown” on Ukraine or the Western nations did not want to deny a diplomatic win to India, a country they are propping up as a counterweight to China, which, they consider, as a threat to their “rules-based” world order? The second possibility sounds more plausible.

The Western nations conveniently ignored that Modi’s hardline Hindu nationalist government flagrantly violates the very values they champion and fiercely defend worldwide. The USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan US federal government commission, has declared India a “Country of Particular Concern” for religious freedom, while the country is ranked 150th among 180 nations on the World Press Freedom Index. The Western silence was profoundly loud because Amnesty International called on the G20 delegates before the summit to “speak out about the deteriorating human rights situation in India characterised by the persecution of minorities, a shrinking space for dissent and weakening of autonomous institutions and take effective measures to hold Indian authorities to account”.

But it was a quid pro quo. While the Western nations didn’t embarrass India on rights abuses and instead ensured the G20 summit is a success, Delhi reciprocated by bringing the US back into the Middle East’s geopolitics to undercut China’s growing clout in the oil-rich region. Together with President Joe Biden, Modi announced the launch of a “corridor” comprising a network of railways and sea routes to connect India, the European Union and the Middle Eastern countries of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, and Israel in a major connectivity project that apparently seeks to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

President Biden touted it as a “real big deal” that would lead to a “more stable, more prosperous and integrated Middle East,” but it appears to be another US attempt to engage in bloc politics to stymie China’s rapid economic growth. Modi took full advantage of the absence of China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin to project himself as the voice of the “Global South” to the world, and as “Vishwaguru”, or leader of the world, to domestic audiences. A Chinese think tank said that this “sabotage of G20” by India for its own agenda would “further create differences and rifts… and will ultimately cause damage to its [India’s] own international image and global development interests”.

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