It may be missing two key invitees but this weekend’s Group of 20 (G20) summit affords Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi an opportunity to extend his leadership beyond his country’s borders as he looks to burnish his credentials on the world stage ahead of a tough election battle.
Modi is bringing together global leaders at the summit in New Delhi as enduring divisions over Russia’s war in Ukraine continue to deepen, taking charge of delivering discourse around some of the most pressing issues, including global economic jitters and a climate crisis that needs urgent action from the world’s wealthiest nations.
It’s an event that has dominated headlines at home and comes at a pivotal time for the Indian leader as he prepares to contest the general election for a rare third term next year.
Yet, as the Ukraine war rages on, friction between China, Russia, and several of the G20 members could put Modi’s statecraft to the test.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping will be absent from the gathering, with Beijing giving no reason for the surprise miss – a move widely seen as a snub to India. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who cannot risk travel in case of arrest, will remain in Moscow, instead sending his foreign minister to represent the Kremlin.
US President Joe Biden however has made it to New Delhi and met with Modi, hoping to seize on an opening created by the absence of the Russian and Chinese leaders.
As the fractured G20 grouping comes together, reaching a consensus agreement looks unlikely – an unprecedented outcome for an event that each year seeks to deliver a statement that lays out common goals for the world’s richest countries.
Nevertheless, analysts say the gathering affords Modi a unique chance to shine on the world stage and flex India’s geopolitical muscle.
“There is polarization between the East and West, and a gap between the North and South. India can act as a bridge,” said Kajari Kamal, associate professor at the Takshashila Institution in India. “This presidency is an important way to showcase that India is a power of consequence.”
‘Moment of pride’
Hailed as India’s event of the year, the G20 has been heavily promoted domestically, with billboards featuring Modi’s face plastered across New Delhi and freshly planted trees lining the capital’s pavement.
The world’s largest democracy is taking no chances to let anything ruin the event, deploying hundreds of security and fortifying large areas in the city.
Life-size cutouts of angry langurs have popped up across the capital to dissuade smaller monkeys from wreaking havoc in public areas. Hidden from sight are rows of slums, with many demolished by authorities or barricaded by newly constructed walls ahead of the summit. Local news channels have spared no detail in covering the leaders’ summit.
While prior to the arrival of European colonization, the many kingdoms that made up what is now modern India were among the wealthiest in the world, for decades after independence, India’s image had been synonymous with underdevelopment and poverty.
But that is a reputation that Modi has long been eager to shake off and while extreme disparities in development continue to persist in the country of 1.4 billion, the G20’s campaign has been clear: India is becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Modi, whose calendar this year included diplomatic trips to Australia and the United States, is presenting himself as a statesman who is cementing the country as a modern superpower.
And 2023 has been a remarkable year in that respect.
Last month India made history by soft landing a rover on the moon, becoming just the fourth nation in the world to have completed such a feat – and it launched its first spacecraft dedicated to studying the sun last week.
This year was also the moment it overtook China to become the world’s most populous nation while the year before it surpassed its former colonial ruler Britain to become the world’s fifth largest economy.
“For a long time, India was perceived as a nation of over 1 billion hungry stomachs,” Modi said in an interview with the Press Trust of India on Sunday. “Now, India is being seen as a nation of over 1 billion aspirational minds.”
There is a “sense of pride” among Indians because of the “grand ecosystem developing around these summits,” said Kamal, from the Takshashila Institution.
“It’s giving a great boost to infrastructure domestically, and to the world, it’s showcasing India’s culture and its rich heritage,” she added. “India is at the heart of the North, South, East and West. It’s a voice of the developing world.”
Xi’s absence, Putin in Moscow
Visibly absent from the meeting this weekend, however, is Xi. The no-show of China’s top leader, unprecedented since the first such summit was held in 2008, comes as tensions simmer between China and India, especially over their disputed border as well as New Delhi’s growing ties with the United States.
While many have been quick to comment on the unprecedented move, calling Xi’s actions a snub to Modi, some analysts say his absence might not necessarily be a bad thing for the Indian leader.
“I think Modi will use this as an opportunity to place India as the leader of the Global South with Biden there,” said Akhil Ramesh, a senior fellow from the Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based foreign policy research institute focused on the Indo-Pacific. “The world’s largest and world’s oldest democracies can create a new era that represents the needs of all.”
Yet, since assuming the presidency of the G20, India has been unable to deliver a joint communique from previous meetings and with Xi and Putin – two leaders with immense control and jurisdiction in their respective homes – sending their second in command instead, the possibility of delivering one this weekend looks like a hard task.
“In my view, only Putin and only Xi would have the authority or the political capital to make concessions and compromises that would be required for there to be any chance of a successful negotiation,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.
India’s ‘carpe diem moment’
India has, since the start of Putin’s devastating war against Ukraine, repeatedly abstained from votes condemning the Kremlin. It has instead skirted Western sanctions and stocked up on Russian oil and weapons.
At the same time, Modi has spoken to the US Congress and dined with US President Joe Biden at the White House.
A member of the Quad security grouping with the US, Japan and Australia, India also has a seat at the table of two Moscow-friendly groupings, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the BRICS bloc, which includes Russia and China.
Modi’s careful maneuvering of today’s divided world has Western governments lining up to court the Indian leader. The US and its allies are looking at India as an important counterweight to China, as Xi pushes an aggressive foreign policy, while making bolder moves in key flashpoints across the region.
At the same time, emerging and developing nations are looking to India to help secure vital financial lifelines from rich countries, and reach a decision on important issues, including climate change.
Speaking in New Delhi last month, Modi spoke of India’s “vision of inclusiveness” and said New Delhi has invited the African Union to become permanent members of the G20.
“The fact that India has shown a willingness to represent these voices should be seen as a win,” said Kamal from the Takshashila Institution. “Even if there is no joint communique, the G20 will be a successful summit.
For Modi, a leader whose ambitions and clout have only grown during his decade in power, there is no doubt that the meeting will be sold as an India success story.
“This year is unique because New Delhi is not just chairing the G20, but it also hosted the SCO and it’s been active with the Quad,” said Ramesh, from the Pacific Forum.
“It’s India’s carpe diem moment.”