What Western press missed about India as Modi’s foreign policy comes of age with G20 summit

There is no question that the G20 summit is already a feather in Modi’s cap – it doesn’t matter that Russia's Putin and China's Xi won’t be turning up for the mega event.
PM Narendra Modi
PM Narendra Modi

New Delhi | The G20 summit is upon a newly prettified Delhi. Neither Russia’s Vladimir Putin nor China’s Xi Jinping are attending, and America’s Joe Biden is coming a day early for a bilateral meeting where a number of agreements are expected to cement the India-US relationship.

But what is striking about the Narendra Modi government’s foreign policy this week is that it is using the G20 summit as a cover to bulldoze through domestic agendas — like the G20 invitations being sent by "The President of Bharat" instead of ‘The President of India’, and the briefing of the high-level committee on the holding of simultaneous assembly and Lok Sabha elections — that it would have to otherwise debate in Parliament.

Of course, the BJP’s brute majority in Parliament would have easily facilitated the passage of any Bills in the House on these two matters – but that would have meant going through a debate. The G20 summit has provided Modi the perfect cover to put these domestic agendas up front and centre.

Having said that, there is no question that the G20 summit is already a feather in Modi’s cap – doesn’t matter that Putin and Xi won’t be turning up for the mega event. The Western press is speculating – and Biden has already said this – that Xi's absence somehow undermines the G20 summit as a global forum.

Nobody really cares about Putin, with the Western world having blacklisted him since the invasion of Ukraine last February. But the Western press seems to have missed out several other nuances at play.   

The three factors

First, India’s leadership of the G20 seems to have somehow transformed into an underlining of Modi’s leadership of India. This means that the global forum, over the past year, has been a springboard for Modi to become a leader who not just represents the developing world – or Global South, in the words of External Affairs minister S Jaishankar – but one among the global big boys.

So, Modi will share centre-stage with Biden, British PM Rishi Sunak, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva -Brazil takes over the G20 mantle from India – and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman among others. This is the most exclusive club in the world. And Modi – who represents Bharat, that is India – is very much part of it.

Second, the fact that Biden, a Democrat president, has decided to throw in his lot with Modi, is a significant addition in the list of the PM’s many charms. It is not usual for US Democrats, known to be left-of-centre in their political bent, to ally so openly with right-wing governments in India, and Biden’s core support base hasn’t hesitated in speaking its mind – remember US Representative Pramlila Jayapal's criticism of the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave special status to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir?

But, the Biden lot has quickly realised that there is no alternative to Modi – the TINA factor is fully at play here. It is clear that the BJP is likely returning to power in 2024, despite opposition INDIA alliance’s valorous attempts at putting up a real fight. Moreover, as I have said before, India is the only country in the world with the potential to take on China – America’s biggest rival these days – despite a much smaller economy in comparison.

It is a no-brainer that the Indian prime minister is the flavour of the month in Washington DC these days. So much so that Biden isn’t just attending the East Asia summit, he is coming to Delhi one day earlier to tell India and the rest of the world that Modi is the man of the hour.

This brings me to the third point — India’s ties with Russia, which have become increasingly transactional. When Putin — and Xi — dropped out of the G20 summit, Indian officials very quietly breathed a huge sigh of relief. Now there would be no need to worry about where to seat either leader, especially Putin, whom the West has been treating as a pariah since the invasion of Ukraine, or who should stand next to him in the leaders’ photo-op.

Fate of Delhi-Moscow alliance?

The big question is, did India try hard enough to persuade Putin to come, especially since the Russian leader has bailed New Delhi out over the past year and a half on the oil front?

Certainly, the growing proximity between India and the US is clear – a good sign from all accounts, considering the US remains the most powerful country in the world. But what is increasingly evident is New Delhi’s unwillingness to forge a Middle Path between Russia and the Rest. As the price of oil rises, in any case, the advantages of continuing to ally with Moscow are significantly reduced.

And so, the G20 is upon us. Besides the prettification of Delhi, which is most welcome, the summit also signifies a greater self-awareness in Modi’s foreign policy. Whether or not that will be contested, or become grist to the mill of India’s most powerful political party in the run-up to the 2024 election, will certainly be debated down the years.

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