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India’s G20 Presidency: Championing the Global South

C. Raja Mohan writes: India now has the material power and political will to lead the Global South. However, a tailored Indian policy is needed to address concerns of different regions and the messy regional politics within the developing world.

India's objective is not to rebuild a global trade union against the North. India is eager to become a bridge between the North and the South by focusing on practical outcomes rather than returning to old ideological battles. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

As it takes charge of the G20 forum, Delhi is proclaiming a new ambition — to champion the cause of the “Global South”. This has raised a number of questions about India’s intentions.

Some in Delhi welcome the return to ideas that so animated India in the past — non-alignment and Third World solidarity. India’s new international partners, especially in the US and Europe, wonder if Delhi is returning to anti-Western orientation. India’s eastern partners too are apprehensive that Delhi might privilege the “Global South” and downgrade the new forums — like the BRICS — built in recent years to promote a multipolar world.

Don’t forget that the NAM and Third World were against the North as a whole — that included the Soviet Union and not just the West. The idea of the “third” world underlined that it was not only different from the “first” — the capitalist West — but also and the second — the socialist “East”.

Others ask how does the claim to champion the Global South square with India’s idea of a vasudhaiva kutumbakam — the world is one family? Is India committed to universalism or mobilising one part against another?

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To understand the new Indian trajectory, we must remember that no man ever steps into the same river twice. Change is the essence of life and India can’t simply turn the clock back.

Many of the old slogans from the second half of the 20th century — framed around the axes of West versus the East and the North versus the South — do not correspond with the ground realities. Consider, for example, the fact that China — that has long been viewed as part of the East and the South — is the second largest economic and military power and sits at the top of the global hierarchy and has deep ties with the West.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is handed over the presidency of the G20 group of nations by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo in Bali. (Photo: Reuters)

The ideological exuberance of Third World radicalism in the 1970s exhausted itself quite quickly. By the 1980s, most countries had moved away from the so-called third path to economic development; they began to accept the so-called “Washington Consensus” on liberalisation and globalisation.


The end of the Cold War saw India too focus on restructuring its economy, manage the new threats to its security from internal insurgencies and cross-border terrorism, rediscover the virtues of regional cooperation, and rearrange its relations with major powers in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

While India continued to participate in the NAM summits and various affiliated forums in the United Nations, promoting Third World solidarity fell off the list of priorities for India. In fact, at most non-aligned summits, the Indian media’s focus was on whether the Indian PM would meet his Pakistani counterpart.

While the Global South fell off from India’s agenda, the nature of international relations in the developing world began to change in a big way in the 21st century. Although it was never part of the non-aligned movement, China saw the Global South as a huge economic and geopolitical opportunity.


China’s tentative “going out” strategy at the turn of the century eventually morphed into the expansive Belt and Road Initiative. China’s new global weight is not limited to the economic domain, but also envelops the cultural, political, technological, and the military.

The G20 logo projected on the Shankaracharya temple in Srinagar on Thursday. (Express photo by Shuaib Masoodi)

If India has been trying to come to terms with the impact of China’s rise on its own neighbourhood in the Subcontinent and the Indian Ocean, the US and Europe have just discovered how much ground they have lost in the Global South to Beijing and Moscow. Their prolonged political neglect of the developing world, and their penchant to lecture the Global South has now made it hard for the US and Europe to mobilise non-Western support against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Unlike President Donald Trump, who referred to parts of the developing world as “shit-hole” countries, President Joe Biden is making a special bid to reconnect with the Global South. Last June, the US sought to inject new life into the summitry with the Latin American countries.

Later this month, Washington is hosting the African leaders to regain some influence in the dynamic continent. Over the last two years, it has also intensified the engagement with the South East Asian and South Pacific countries.

Europe, which has long dined out on its residual influence in the Global South, now finds the Chinese eating their lunch. Europe has begun to offer alternatives to Belt and Road by putting down serious money for infrastructure development. If Europe ever becomes a geopolitical actor, it will be compelled to take a more strategic view of the non-Western world.


Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping is eager to exploit the setbacks to US policies in the Middle East — rooted in Washington’s habit of taking the Arab world for granted. During his much anticipated visit to Saudi Arabia this week, Xi will also participate in a Sino-Arab summit. His visit will highlight the growing convergence between the Arab quest for strategic diversification away from the West and Beijing’s determination to pitch its tent in Arabia.

Put simply, we are entering an era of renewed great power competition for the Global South. The developing world too is looking ahead and not looking back to the old scripts; its leaders want concrete options and are adept at bargaining with multiple suitors.


India too has risen in the international hierarchy and is well on its way to becoming the third largest economy. Although it is by no means a pole in its own right, its room for international activism has grown significantly. And there is much it can do in sharpening the focus on issues of special concern to the developing world amidst the challenges presented by deglobalisation, the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.

India’s objective is not to rebuild a global trade union against the North. India is eager to become a bridge between the North and the South by focusing on practical outcomes rather than returning to old ideological battles. In recent years, Delhi has often talked of itself as a “South Western power” that is capable of building deep partnerships with the US and Europe and at the same time, championing the interests of the Global South.


If India can translate this ambition into effective policy, there will be no contradiction between the simultaneous pursuit of universal and particular goals. But Delhi should be aware of the pitfalls.

In the past, India’s ideological enthusiasm for the Global South was not matched by material power and political will. Today, India’s material capabilities have grown and its leadership is brimming with political ambition. But Delhi is some distance away from overcoming the entrenched indifference within the governmental machinery to India’s new international possibilities.

India must also come to terms with the fact that the Global South is not a coherent group and does not have a single shared agenda. There is much differentiation within the South today in terms of wealth and power, needs and capabilities. This demands a tailored Indian policy to different regions and groups of the developing world.

India’s Third World strategy in the Cold War era was undermined by multiple internal and regional conflicts within the Global South. India simply ducked them in the past or hid behind overarching slogans. Championing the Global South today would demand more active Indian engagement with the messy regional politics within the developing world.

The writer is a senior fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

First published on: 06-12-2022 at 07:16 IST
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