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G-20 presidency is an opportunity to position India as the voice of the Global South

The Indian elite and foreign policy commentariat, influenced heavily by Western thinking on world affairs, have acquired an exaggerated view of Indian global influence, hitching their wagons to the West rather than stay the course with the South. A return to the basics, placing the developing world's developmental concerns at the heart of global discourse should be the way forward

The Indian elite and foreign policy commentariat, influenced heavily by Western thinking on world affairs, have acquired an exaggerated view of Indian global influence and power, hitching their wagons to the West rather than stay the course with the South. (Reuters Photo)

Caught between an existential East-West conflict of major powers, and dealing with the crisis of multilateralism, the slowing down of the major economies and a global impasse on the eve of taking charge of the presidency of the Group of Twenty (G-20), India has wisely rediscovered the South. India is being perceived as the “Voice of Global South”, declared external affairs minister S Jaishankar, after a hectic week at the United Nations. Asked if India was taking the dust off an earlier foreign policy template of South-South cooperation, the minister replied, “Global South solidarity has always been with us, it’s part of our DNA.”

The fact, however, is that over the past two decades India has been busy claiming “rising”, “leading” and major power status, with its impressive economic rise between the mid-1990s and the mid-2010s. Interestingly, still fighting shy of admitting to our low middle income “developing country” status we have adopted the now fashionable term of the aspirational Third World — “Global South”.

Consider the fact that India has been largely inactive in what many in the Indian foreign policy commentariat regard as a moribund organisation, the Group of 77 (G-77) — now a 134-member group of developing economies. India last hosted a G-77 meeting in New Delhi in the 1980s. Pakistan has been more active within this group and currently chairs it. India, on the other hand, was busy hobnobbing with the big guys in forums like “G-7 plus”, BRICS, SCO and trilaterals and quadrilaterals like Quad, Japan-America-India (JAI), Russia-India-China (RIC), and so on.

Several factors seem to have contributed to a change in Indian official outlook. First and foremost, the persistent unwillingness of the Big Five (the US, Russia, China, France and UK) to reform UN governance and let India into the UN Security Council, despite occasional endorsement of India’s claims. Second, Western deglobalisation and disinterest in reform of multilateral financial and trade organisations (IMF, WB & WTO). Third, failure on the part of the US, EU, China and Japan to address the problem of mounting external debt burden of developing countries. Fourth, the impasse on climate change. Finally, the unleashing of an East-West power struggle, brought to a head by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, imposing huge costs on developing economies.

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In the early days of the East-West conflict, many analysts imagined that India could step in as an interlocutor, given its good relations with both Russia and the US, help secure a ceasefire and emerge as a global player, fulfilling prophesies of its potential as a “Swing State”. Alas, that did not happen. Neither Vladimir Putin nor Joseph Biden was willing to listen to friendly advice from Narendra Modi. Even the Europeans lent a deaf ear and, worse, sermonised India forcing a friendly Jaishankar to admonish them at Bratislava.

The huge economic costs imposed on developing countries by the economic consequences of the East-West conflict have come on top of the burden of Covid. Someone had to remind the world’s most powerful, engaged in a continued search for global dominance, that the developing, post-colonial nations seek to rid the world of colonialism, neo-colonialism, “social imperialism” and hegemonism. These were the watchwords of the G-77 and have all but been forgotten in the era of globalisation, once fashionably referred to as a “Flat World” of equals.

It is at a time like this that India waits to take up the chairmanship of the G-20. We would know within the next month where the G-20 is headed. Host country Indonesia has tried to bring all sides together but given the state of the Ukraine war, it is unlikely that Putin and Biden will find themselves face to face in Jakarta. If the Indonesia summit fails, G-20 itself might enter a non-functional phase.

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In fact, over the past few years the G-20 has little to its credit. Its glory days were in 2008-11 when the group stabilised the global economy. It failed to step in and help the Covid-afflicted world. So India may be taking over the chairmanship of a paralysed group. It is perhaps against this background that the Indian government has chosen to switch gears. If G-20 is going to be stymied by the East-West conflict, why not try to breathe life into it as a platform for North-South dialogue? With three countries of the South — Indonesia, India and Brazil — taking charge of G-20 in 2022-24, this period offers an opportunity for North-South issues to be flagged.

India’s focus on reform of multilateralism, international finance and trade, climate change, developing country external debt, energy and food prices and so on is a menu that was last served in the pre-globalisation, pre-Rising India era of the G-77. As a low middle income country seeking rapid economic development India remains well placed to be the “Voice of the Global South”. However, India needs to regain the trust of other developing countries, especially in Africa and South and Southeast Asia, espousing their interests, for it to once again play this role effectively.

The Indian elite and foreign policy commentariat, influenced heavily by Western thinking on world affairs, have acquired an exaggerated view of Indian global influence and power, hitching their wagons to the West rather than stay the course with the South. A return to the basics, placing the developing world’s developmental concerns at the heart of global discourse, may not be a bad option today, but requires effort on the part of the Global South.

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Given the impasse in G-20, India may have well decided to make the most of the run-up to the summit, using this period to host several conferences and events, showcasing India as a tourist destination. The Union Minister of Tourism and Culture has already said this is a good opportunity for India to promote tourism. Perhaps that is why Prime Minister Modi chose to appoint an official who earned his bureaucratic credentials as a promoter of tourism — Kerala’s “God’s Own Country” and the “Incredible India” brands — as his G-20 Sherpa.

The writer is a policy analyst

First published on: 29-09-2022 at 04:14:39 am
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