G20 And Indian Foreign Policy Will Never Be The Same Again

India has moved in sharply to fill this void and has used its G20 Presidency to persuasively underscore its own leadership credentials.

September 10, 2023 2:17 pm


By Harsh Pant

There are times in a nation’s journey when its arrival on the global stage emerges as an empirical reality, one that its leadership has to embrace and its people have to acknowledge. India’s G20 journey has been one such landmark where for all the despondency about New Delhi not being able to deliver a joint communique was dispelled when a consensus document was unveiled much before the summit’s culmination.

We are so used to India underperforming that when it overperforms it takes the nation some time to let the news sink in. And it is not about the verbiage of the declaration. It is about the attitude with which the whole G20 process was conducted.

While the critics were busy trying to find faults – first with the expansive scale, then with the agenda and finally with the outcome – the policymakers were busy trying to ambitiously define India’s place in the global order. It has been a remarkable journey, to say the least, where India rediscovered its global aspirations and its ability to conduct mega diplomacy. There were two dialogues going on simultaneously through the G20 process, one within India as ordinary Indians recognised the increasingly blurry lines between the domestic and foreign, thereby getting engaged with the nation’s external outreach much more substantively. The other dialogue was with the rest of the world that had often in the past questioned India’s ability and willingness to lead on the global stage.

In the last decade of his leadership, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has unleashed a renewed sense of ambition in India’s global engagements. His bilateral diplomacy has been there for all to see but the G20 presented him and India at large a stage to come out of the cocoon of an emerging power. In this, New Delhi was supported by a global environment where great power contestation emerged once again as the central faultline. Under the pressure of a rapidly evolving global balance of power, the weaknesses of existing multilateral institutions have been quite evident. The war in Ukraine has endangered the global developmental agenda, which a large part of the world was desperate for, after the pandemic. With a leadership void at its heart amid growing disenchantment with the West and Chinese assertiveness, the world disorder has been quite evident.

The Current Status Of Indian Foreign Policy With The G20 Presidency
The Current Status Of Indian Foreign Policy With The G20 Presidency

India has moved in sharply to fill this void and has used its G20 Presidency to persuasively underscore its own leadership credentials. That the G20 has not really been a particularly effective platform in the past is beside the point. New Delhi had to play the hand it was dealt with and it has played it rather well. Recognising well the intense geopolitical polarisation, it framed the global developmental agenda through the lens of the so-called Global South. The structural realities of global politics are not of India’s making nor can India unilaterally change them. But it had to find a way of putting forth its own global governance agenda.

And that it did with aplomb by sharpening the focus on the link between conflict and the developmental agenda; by underlining the setbacks in achieving the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals); by showcasing its digital public infrastructure as a global public good; by pushing for an accelerated process for the multilateral development bank reforms; by highlighting the burden of debt on the low and middle income nations; and by putting the Global South at the heart of its global governance initiatives.

As the African Union takes the G20 to G21, New Delhi can proudly look back at a formidable legacy of making this global platform much more inclusive and relevant. The adoption of the New Delhi declaration “with 100% consensus on all developmental and geo-political issues” was merely the icing on the cake.

There was a lot of suspense on how the divide will be bridged by India on the issue of Ukraine with some giving up on consensus long back. But in line with New Delhi’s long-standing position, the G20 declaration called on nations to uphold international law, including territorial integrity and sovereignty, international humanitarian law and the multilateral system that safeguards peace and stability. With this, India’s bridging power was on full display at the global level.

What was also on display was New Delhi’s ability to shape global platforms to provide solutions to common challenges. The launch of the Global Biofuel Alliance to boost the use of cleaner fuels so as to accelerate international efforts to meet net zero emission targets by facilitating trade in biofuels is India’s second institutional commitment to the energy transition after the creation of International Solar Alliance. And in the spirit of shaping a more inclusive global economic order, a comprehensive rail and shipping connectivity network has been announced linking US, India, West Asia and the European Union.

India managed to achieve a remarkable feat by convening a summit of this kind and achieving a broad consensus on how best to manage global challenges when tensions are high among major powers. But more than the outcome, impressive though it is, it’s the G20 process of the last few months that has allowed to rediscover its own potential as a global interlocutor. With its deft leadership, New Delhi has managed to put its own distinct imprimatur on the G-20, making it a much more dynamic platform and in the process, India has managed to elevate its own credibility in the global order. For sure, the G20 will not begin to solve all of the world’s problems from tomorrow nor will Indian external challenges disappear. But both the G20 and Indian foreign policy will never be the same again.

(Harsh V. Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King’s College London. He is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is also the Director (Honorary) of the Delhi School of Transnational Affairs at Delhi University.)

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