Photo shows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Brazilian President Lula da Silva, US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen10th Sep, 2023: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads G20 leaders in paying respects at the Samadhi of Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat in New Delhi. [l-r] Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Brazilian President Lula da Silva, US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. [Credit: Ricardo Stuckert/President Brazil/Alamy Live News]

No house has been demolished to beautify the city for the G20 summit,’ an Indian minister assured MPs in July. No houses perhaps, but thousands of homes were razed to the ground. As a Reuters graphic poignantly illustrates, more than half of the Indian capital’s 20 million people live in slums, and many of those that were not lucky enough to be just hidden away behind screens lost their shacks to bulldozers.

The summit’s theme was the Vedic dictum Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (‘the world is one family’ in Sanskrit) but less privileged members of the family were understandably angry that they had been bundled out of sight. ‘They have covered our area so that poor people like us, and poverty in the country, is not witnessed by the people arriving from abroad,’ said Devi, a 50-year-old cleaner. ‘Poor people like us will only curse this event because we are going to suffer and our bellies will be hungry.’

The National Association of Street Vendors of India estimated that 300,000 street vendors had been evicted from Delhi since July. ‘In the name of cleanliness, they want to make Delhi look like Paris by removing the poor. Where will they go?’ asked Mohan Singh Verma, a biryani seller, ‘G20 has been a curse for us.’

Bharat or India? Narendra Modi reopens an old debate
Forecasting India’s potential
India’s foreign policy: nationalist aspirations and enduring constraints

Nirmal Gorana, of Mazdur Awas Sangharsh Samiti, a Delhi-based housing rights organisation, said demolitions had displaced more than 100,000 people. ‘This increase is definitely linked to the G20 summit,’ he said. ‘We don’t want to show them that there is such poverty here.’

Monkey cutouts

Instead, billboards and ads promised an ‘ambitious and decisive G20’ and portrayed the prime minister, Narendra Modi, declaring India to be the ‘mother of democracy’ (ignoring criticism of him turning India into an ‘electoral autocracy’). An estimated 150 fountains, 100 sculptures and 680,000 plants were installed at prominent locations on the newly sanitised route from the airport to central Delhi. No effort was spared to make the dignitaries’ stay as smooth as possible – most ludicrously in  placing cutouts of langur monkeys around the city to deter smaller rhesus monkeys, along with dozens of people employed to mimic monkey sounds, so foreigners did not have to encounter India’s wildlife as well as its poor.

The Group of Twenty, which comprises the 19 richest countries, plus the European Union and now the African Union, represents about 85% of global GDP though only two-thirds of the world’s population. Amid such wealth, it seems bitterly ironic that India, the poorest country per capita in the G20, appears to have spent far more than any previous host on staging the event: a widely reported 41bn rupees ($495m). Bloomberg put the added cost of lost trade because of the security lockdown at $120m.

Last year the Ministry of External Affairs issued a lengthy agenda for India’s G20 presidency, including ‘equitable and sustainable growth; women’s empowerment; digital public infrastructure in health, agriculture, education and tourism; climate financing; global food security; energy security; green hydrogen; disaster-risk reduction; developmental cooperation; the fight against economic crime; and multilateral reforms’.

India at 75 – 2022 Special edition of the Round Table Journal

Prelude to polls

It seems unlikely that much progress will have been made in achieving these lofty ambitions but, no matter, the optics were the main thing, with Modi eyeing India’s general and state elections next year (it reportedly delayed its G20 presidency so the showcase event was a prelude to the polls). ‘Modi wants to pitch himself as a global statesman, as the leader of a country that is respected and taken seriously by the international community,’ said Happymon Jacob, a professor of foreign policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

So how much has Modi succeeded in his ambition of establishing India as the voice of the global south? One undoubted win for him was in securing an agreement for the 55-state African Union to join the EU in becoming a permanent G20 member. There were also significant deals agreed on the sidelines, such as the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor.

But India is trying to straddle both sides of a polarised world – as the Ukraine war widens the split between the west and ‘anti-imperialist’ countries such as Russia, China and many African states – and Modi found this more problematic. Dr Chietigj Bajpaee, of Chatham House, said the G20 presidency illustrated the ‘difficulties that India will experience in developing and maintaining strategic autonomy in a polarised world’.

In trying to assert its equidistance from other great powers, it did not help that neither China’s leader, Xi Jinping, nor Russia’s Vladimir Putin went to Delhi. While the latter faces an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for war crimes in Ukraine, analysts were unsure about Xi’s no-show. The New York Times decided it was a ‘snub’ to India as China’s border dispute strains relations, but Xi’s non-attendance did help Modi hog the limelight.

Defying speculation that it might be the first G20 summit to end without the customary joint declaration, a consensus was eventually reached – but one which papered over key differences and came at the expense of any meaningful statement beyond a vague condemnation of war. With Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, making it clear that he would block any communiqué that condemned his country over Ukraine, the Leaders’ Declaration merely called on states ‘to uphold the principles of international law including territorial integrity and sovereignty’.

Moscow’s withdrawal

Putin’s aggression was not mentioned, making the declaration far weaker than the one last year at the Bali G20 summit, which stated that the G20 ‘deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine’ and demanded Moscow’s ‘unconditional withdrawal’. This year, the declaration merely referred to war ‘in Ukraine’. Lavrov claimed diplomatic victory, the Times reported. ‘We were able to prevent the west’s attempts to “Ukrainise” the summit agenda,’ he said.

As the G20 presidency was passed to Brazil, the summit caps a good year for India: it became only the fourth country to land on the Moon; it overtook China as the world’s most populous country; and it supplanted the UK, its former colonial overlord, as the world’s fifth-largest economy. Most deliciously of all for Modi, a prime minister once banned from the US for his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom got the red-carpet treatment from President Biden in Washington.

‘What I’m amazed by is how the Modi government has turned the G20 into a non-stop advertisement for both India and his leadership,’ said Manjari Chatterjee Miller, of Washington’s Council on Foreign Relations. But it was no surprise for the Economist, which argued that the G20 had played the same role as the Beijing Olympic Games did for China in 2008: as ‘a “coming-out party” to show itself off to the world’.

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.

‘Eye on the Commonwealth’ columns look at current issues facing the Commonwealth

Find out more about the Commonwealth Round Table and the Round Table Journal