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India’s Time to Shine? A Reflection on the 2023 G20 Summit… 

Staff writer Amarjot Ghatore delves beneath the surface of India’s recent G20 summit glitz and glamour, exposing the reality of the domestic situation of the largest democracy in the world.

As we found ourselves transitioning away from recent months of summer sunshine, the political world had to cast its mind to the latest G20 summit, best summarised as an antithesis to the tranquillity experienced throughout the transitioning seasons.

The origins of the G20 can be traced back to 1999, as a response to the havoc wreaked by the Asian financial crisis. Its primary objective was to create a forum to mitigate future economic instability, foster international cooperation and build trust among nations. Since its inception, the G20 has been a platform dedicated to addressing the economic and political challenges confronting its member states whilst shaping the global policy agenda. Notably, these 20 member nations collectively account for 75% of global trade and 85% of the world’s economic output, and therefore command the attention of the entire international communications.

This year India assumed the presidency of the G20. During the event, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was able to achieve many of his strategic objectives, including establishing a clear geopolitical distinction from China, strengthening ties with the United States and bolstering his domestic popularity in anticipation of the looming Indian general election. These goals were underscored by a newfound emphasis on formulating more efficient trade routes to counter China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. This year’s summit presented Modi with an opportunity to assert India’s international prominence as a potential successor to the long-standing command that America’s economic metier has held over the other G20 nations. 

Several factors make India’s assumed role seem natural. India is commonly renowned as the world’s largest liberal democracy, answering to a population of one and a half billion. Consequently, for nations with liberal sympathies, it is only logical to view India as a potential counterbalance to China amid strained Sino-American relations. Data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) paints India as a rising star characterised by a surging GDP, buoyed by a steadily increasing population. This economic growth starkly contrasts China’s purported downturn following the COVID-19 pandemic and its lingering financial burdens. The 2023 G20 summit provided Modi with an ideal platform to showcase these economic achievements, not merely as a demonstration of geopolitical strength, but also as an assertion of leadership and independence from Western expectations. 

While India seeks to project a convivial image to the world with its rich tapestry of history, laced with spices, bustling streets and vibrant colours, the reality behind these scenes is less rosy. In preparation for the G20 summit, thousands of residents in the national capital were forcibly displaced with their dwellings bulldozed to beautify and sanitise the streets before the global spotlight turned to India’s domestic affairs. This brings Modi’s adept political choreography to the foreground, orchestrating moves that sustain his domestic dominance to magnify his competence on the global stage. 

And despite an array of comedic speeches, diplomatic pleasantries and cultural celebrations, the fragility of Modi’s leadership always remained palpable – particularly to those who have been affected by the fractious politics under the reign of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). 

These conflicting narratives undeniably allow unfavourable realities to emerge despite Modi’s resilient use of political smoke screens and diplomatic manoeuvres. One such contention surrounded Modi’s radio silence as Russia initiated a full-scale, military invasion of a democratic Ukraine in 2021 which raised questions about India’s true intentions in the international arena. Modi framed this stance as one of neutrality or ‘omni-alignment’ – signalling a departure from Sino-Indian diplomacy and a shift toward clear, geostrategic autonomy. RAND’s Derek Grossman suggested that “New Delhi—an increasingly close U.S. partner—has been mostly successful in pushing back against Beijing’s rising influence across the region”; so as far as being passive with a nuclear neighbour goes, Modi has ensured that India and her priorities come first.

To prove this, whilst Europe sanctioned Russian trade, India continued buying 800,000 barrels of Russian oil a day, selling them within Europe with increased margins. The natural preoccupation within states for profit-seeking has blinded key geopolitical tensions underlining their interactions. Though trading Russian oil is technically legal, it questions the socio-political friction stemming from India’s proxied interactions. Ukraine’s Chief economic advisor echoes this stating “…[the] companies who are helping Putin complete this pivot to new markets out of pure greed are complicit in his war crimes”. President Putin and President Xi Jinping’s absence from the G20 summit has further increased resistance between the West and these rising powers. Dr Chietigj Bajpayee deconstructed New Delhi’s push for independence as being hung in the balance between “advocating for a more equitable distribution of power….while avoiding being seen to promote an anti-Western agenda”.

India seems to be on track to enter a self-proclaimed period of ‘Amrit Kaal’ (simply translated as a time for ‘strategic openings’) but it is grappling with deeply significant domestic challenges, including insufficient job creation and the premature formalisation of its industry-driven sectors. With a population superseding one billion, it is unfair to expect unparalleled job creation overnight, however, bouts of misinformation on the administration’s part and active disconnect from reality have propelled political apathy amongst the economically disenfranchised. An unstandardised economy and rapidly widening income inequality underscore these discrepancies in the government’s agenda. Modi’s G20 slogan of “One Earth, One Family, One Future” seems to abandon internal political verities.

Similarly, India’s political future seems far from united. Deep-seated ethnoreligious divisions are exacerbated by illiberal Hindu majoritarianism, which seeks to stifle the media and erode essential checks and balances that monitor and often legitimise leaders and their agenda. In 2018, UN Secretary-General António Guterres prophesied the continued exploitation of religious contentions by political figures as a proxy for manipulating innate antagonisms. Unfortunately, minority communities continue to face constitutional disadvantages due to these realities, most recently seen in Manipur

While newspaper headlines may spotlight the glitz and glamour of India’s elite, the reality paints a different picture. Hindu nationalism, staunch anti-China policies, and entrenched corruption continue to undermine the facade of progress Modi’s administration often presents. Since gaining independence in 1947, India has used its democratic posture as a beacon for international acceptance but maintaining these falsities may prove increasingly challenging. Economic success has positioned India as a rising star on the global stage, but at what cost? It is undeniable that Western support for Modi’s government has reshaped Asia’s stance in the international arena, but shared interests do not necessarily equate to shared values, as noted by Foreign Affairs’ Daniel Markey. It is up to the West to recognise this dissonance before abasing themselves on the international stage when India’s conflictions inevitably come to light. 

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