India assumed the G20 presidency on December 1. If activities since then are any indication, it will be quite a ride over the next 11 months. Beginning December 4, New Delhi hosted four back-to-back preparatory meetings in three cities: The G20 Sherpa meeting in Udaipur; the development working group meeting in Mumbai; and meetings of two panels — finance and central bank deputies and framework working group — in Bengaluru.
These events, attended by, among others, representatives of United Nations (UN) bodies, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the International Labour Organization, have set the ball rolling for a packed G20 calendar for the next 10 months, which will culminate with the 18th summit in New Delhi in September 2023.
New Delhi is pulling out all the stops to ensure its presidency gets off the ground correctly. And rightly so.
The G20 is the most important multilateral bloc. The largest and oldest group of nations, the UN, has seen its power weaken over the years. The role of its Security Council — dominated by the five permanent members, the United States (US), Russia, Britain, France and China, which reflects the global power structure of the late 1940s, not 2020s — has shrunk considerably, significantly reducing the UN’s ability to intervene in crises constructively.
While the G20, established less than two decades ago, is not an alternative to the UN, its power and influence have risen with every global crisis, especially with the two most populous nations, China and India, beginning to take more significant roles on global issues.
The G20, unlike the UN, reflects the current economic world order. Although it is much nimbler than the UN, it can provide leadership on issues concerning humanity. Since the first G20 summit held in Washington during the Great Recession of 2008, the forum has done that several times. It is also more representative and, therefore, more effective than the two blocs it replaced: The initial Group of 7 (G7), which consisted of the seven most-advanced economies, and the subsequent G8, comprising the G7 and Russia.
India’s G20 stewardship presents the country with both challenges and opportunities. The global economy, which has never fully recovered from Covid-19 devastations, is going through a critical period. Even though energy prices have stabilised somewhat, inflation that made life difficult for the middle class and poor worldwide has not eased yet. Now with China hit with another wave of Covid-19, countries are bracing for the worst.
Another challenge India will have to deal with is to not get distracted by the Russia-Ukraine war. Now in its 11th month, the war has had an enormous political and economic effect.
Economically, the war has been a factor behind price rise globally; politically, it has triggered divisions among the G20 powers. Besides the two groups that have skin in the game, Russia, on the one side and the US-led West on the other, a third group of countries, which includes India, China, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, stand in the middle, taking a more nuanced view of the war.
The war has also increased hostilities between the two largest militaries in the world, the US and Russia, not seen since the height of the Cold War.
It is impossible to predict how the war will end and what outcome we will see. Whatever the outcome, the distrust between Washington and Moscow is unlikely to disappear. Hosting President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the same platform will be a bold and interesting exercise in diplomacy.
The G20 stewardship also allows India to position itself as an interlocutor between the Global North and the South. This was emphasised by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, in his message on India’s presidency. “Our G20 priorities will be shaped in consultation with not just our G20 partners, but also our fellow travellers in the Global South, whose voice often goes unheard,” he said.
The G20 summit will be the biggest multilateral event held in New Delhi in four decades, the last being the 7th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), in March 1983. Nearly 100 nations attended that event, chaired by PM Indira Gandhi. But unlike the summit of the nearly defunct NAM, which Gandhi used to flex India’s ideological muscle, PM Modi is likely to use the G20 platform to showcase the country’s economic muscle and convert the challenge of the G20 presidency into an opportunity to move India to the forefront of world leaders.