India’s G20 Presidency: Opportunities and Challenges

Randha Saleem
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The G20 2023 logo displayed at the illuminated Qutb Minar in Delhi. Source: ET

If you arrived in a major Indian city right now, posters and installations of India’s G20 logo would cram your field of vision. The logo clad in a green and saffron gradient with the “0” representing the planet placed on a lotus, is highly reminiscent of the ruling party’s symbol of the saffron lotus. From airports to government offices and trains, you will have hoardings of Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcoming you to the “mother of democracy” and letting everyone know that India is hosting the year’s G20.

Perhaps this is precisely what’s peculiar about the Indian chapter. Very rarely does the electoral public become an active participant in the foreign policy of a country. The government has successfully redefined foreign policy objectives (previously reserved for the few) to include not just the citizens of the country but the world’s citizens as a whole.

The G20 logo for India's presidency.
The G20 logo for during India’s presidency. Beneath the logo that reads “Bharat” in Devanagri script and in English, the theme of the presidency Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The World Is One Family) has been interpreted otherwise aptly for the presidency to mean ‘One Earth. One Family. One Future’.

The Presidency

India is currently presiding over the most powerful economic grouping in the world – the Group of Twenty (G20), a premier forum for international economic cooperation. The group comprises 19 of the world’s leading developed and developing countries. This year’s Summit will be held in New Delhi on September 9-10. Its meetings are being held across all 28 states and the 8 Union Territories of India. Taking over from Indonesia, the presidency began on 1st December 2022 and will last till November 30th, 2023.

India taking over the G20 presidency from Indonesia in Decemeber 2022.
Source: AP/The Hindu

India has described its presidency as a one of healing, harmony and hope. The theme of the presidency highlights LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment) which conceptualises the idea of an action oriented agenda to shape an inclusive and sustainable world. Also driven by a pragmatic, national interest oriented foreign policy, the country aims to utilise its leadership of the G20 to reaffirm its global status and influence the shaping of a new world order through the propagation of its cultural and civilisational values.

India has assumed the presidency at a time of political division (emphasized with the Ukrainian war), mistrust between major powers, and when global governing bodies, like the UN, have become mere spectators. Therefore, presiding over the influential G20 at a critical point in international politics can be perceived as both a challenge and an opportunity for India.

Voice of the Global South

India, as a leading developing economy, has always been considered the leader of the Global South. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar stated that India, unlike the chairs before, would use its G20 presidency to put across concerns of the Global South.

India’s emotional solidarity with the Global South had begun with its rejection of the Cold War bloc politics. The country was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, formed to foster cooperation between developing and underdeveloped nations. This cooperation was based on the shared history of colonialism, poverty and underdevelopment. India envisages the forum as a platform to act on the unique challenges faced by the developing world; which include the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis, poverty, unemployment, and severe socio-economic inequalities.

India was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), dedicated to representing the interests and aspirations of developing countries. Source: Getty Images

A major demand of the Global South is the restructuring of the global economic order that still favours the developed world. Critics of the G20 allege that the forum, as influential as it is, operates to preserve the existing international monetary system and the global economic governance that serves the interests of corporations as well as the powerful and wealthy in the developed and the developing countries. Interestingly, the G20 was formed in 1999, in the backdrop of the economic crisis that swept across East Asia; the objective of the newly formed forum was the design of a new financial architecture. However, not much was achieved in turning around the global economic framework to take into consideration the interests of underdeveloped nations.

Challenges for Indian G20

In the meetings so far, an issue that has proved to be the obvious elephant in the room has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in March, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called on Russia to pull back its forces and the forum to back it. The issue is further complicated by India’s neutral position, and as host, it does not want its presidency to be dominated by discourses on the war. Instead, it wishes to focus on the food and energy crisis that has emerged due to the war and one that has unfairly affected the less developed nations. Nevertheless, India is aware of the opportunity that arises with the attendance of Western and Russian interlocutors at its meetings. If it manages dialogue between the two (a bleak probability), it could claim a diplomatic win.

The G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in March failed to produce a joint statement due to rift between countries over Ukraine War.
Source: PTI/The Hindu

Hostile relations between the US and China could also prove challenging just as hostilities between India and Pakistan do. Pakistan has harshly objected to India’s holding the G20 events in Kashmir. Such tensions between the G20 members could hinder the ability of the forum to come to a consensus.

Moreover, the urgency to tackle the climate crisis looms large upon the members of the G20. As the developing nations unfairly bear the brunt of the crisis, the forum has a major responsibility in jointly addressing it. India has prioritised the environment for the G20 through its proposal of a ‘Green Development Pact.’

Prospects for India

India approaches the G20 presidency as the finest opportunity to showcase its growth as a global power. As a regional power exuding significant influence in the subcontinent and increasingly acting as a global player, the Indian foreign policy outlook has shifted from its previous policy of non-alignment to multi-alignment. This shift may have caused some to accuse India of betraying its commitments to South-South cooperation and jeopardise Global South demands.

A radical change in the Indian foreign policy agenda is the work of the Narendra Modi government that came to power in 2014. An assertive and independent attitude driven along the lines of multilateralism was adopted; paving the way for intensified and balanced relations with both the West and the East. While it may have complicated India’s positioning on certain matters on the global stage, such as the war between the West and Russia, the country no more shies away from outspokenly promoting its strategic interests in the region and beyond. On the pretext of the G20, Prime Minister Modi has spoken that multilateralism and global governance have failed, a remark that suggests that India sees itself as being the objective judge of world politics. In such a scenario, the country seems well-equipped to deal with the challenges that may arise during the presidency.

For India, this G20 presidency is yet another chance to validate its claim to a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. | Source: AFP/Mint

The Indian government may have gone to extreme lengths to promote its G20 presidency domestically in hopes of either clout or electoral advantage. But on the world stage, it is to further the long-term need for changing the biased world order. India believes that a permanent membership in the UN Security Council will be a step toward balancing the new global power dynamics.

  • Considering the manner in which the country has confronted global challenges before, will India be able to hit expectations of uniting a deeply polarised world?
  • How will it balance its own relations with the conflicted great powers?
  • Will it prioritise needs of the developing world, amidst its run for stature in a west-dominated global political arena?

Suggested Readings:

Anand, Mohit, “Opportunities and challenges of India’s G20 presidency”, Politico, 27 December 2022.

Hasan, Mehdi, “Challenges to India’s G20 Presidency and Effectiveness of G20 Framework”, Hindustan Times, January 27 2023.

Haidar, Suhasini, “India stakes its G20 legacy on Global South imprint”, The Hindu, July 14 2023.

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India’s G20 Preside…

by Randha Saleem time to read: 6 min