G20: Modi Plays an Old Game, Walking in the Footsteps of Nehru

Prime Minister Narendra Modi may not like being told his 'multi-alignment and voice of Global South' is New India's version of Old India's 'non-alignment and Third World solidarity'.     

For the 80-year-old President of the United States, it was a hectic weekend. After a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and participation in the proceedings of the G20 Summit, he landed in Hanoi and was ready for a 20-minute interaction with the media. Surprisingly focused and pointed in his remarks and replies, Biden spoke on a range of issues, including American concerns about human rights and civil liberties in India, Xi Jinping’s absence at the G20 summit, US-China relations, the state of the Chinese economy and so on. However, put it down to his age, or just a Freudian Slip, he kept referring to the ‘Global South’ as the ‘Third World’. Therein lies a tale.

Also read: Five Keys Takeaways From the G20 Summit in Delhi

The Group of Seven (G7) rich industrial economies continue to view the Global South as the Third World, even if Prime Minister Modi keeps reminding the world that India will soon be the world’s third largest economy. Yes, India has landed a spacecraft on the moon, and has done much that we can genuinely be proud of, but then India was a nuclear and space power even when it was poorer.

A balancing act of Indian diplomacy

If the New Delhi Summit was a success, and it was, this was not on account of India’s emergence as a global ‘superpower’, as some in the ruling party have been claiming, but on account of the fact that Indian diplomacy used two tried and tested cards in the country’s diplomatic playbook that had worked in the past and that have worked again.

At the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2022, the United States and the European Union succeeded in cornering Russia and admonishing its invasion of Ukraine. Russia protested that since its inception the G20 had focused only on global economic issues, steering clear of geopolitics and security-related issues. This plea, voiced also by China, was rejected and a formulation critical of Russia was introduced. Worse, from Russia’s point of view, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy was allowed to address the Bali summit.

Prime Minister Modi was well aware that India could ill afford to embarrass Russia in this manner. Unlike Indonesia, India has deep and long-standing relations with Russia and these still matter. While there were some in India who felt the G20 should have a wider scope beyond economics and should discuss security-related issues, including terrorism, given that India was not a member of the UN Security Council but was a founding member of G20, there were others who did not quite go along with this view. Returning home from Indonesia, Prime Minister Modi began consulting various individuals, apart from his own colleagues and came to the view that if the New Delhi summit has to avoid the pitfall of Big Power rivalry, then India must play a decisive role in setting the agenda.

India chose to make it clear that it would continue to balance its relations between the G7 and Russia. The message was clearly communicated to all G7 heads of government. While Modi was willing to rap Russian President Vladimir Putin by declaring that “this is no era of war”, he ignored G7 economic sanctions and continued to buy and process Russian crude oil. Even as he kept Russian leadership happy, Modi flew into the United States and France, signed major defence deals, and paid for G7 friendship. In doing all this, Modi was using an old Nehru-Indira diplomatic card. It was easier for him to play this card because in 2023 India had more diplomatic space in world affairs than was the case, at least in the Indira Gandhi era.

Modi’s second card was pure Nehruvian. He decided to revive India’s ‘voice’ for the Global South, focusing on developmental challenges and championing the entry of Africa into the G20. It used to be called Afro-Asian Solidarity in the 1950s. A poorer ‘Old India’ was the voice of the ‘Third World’. A richer ‘New India’ is now the ‘Voice of the Global South’. The Nehru jacket was re-stitched, in many colours and sold as the Modi jacket.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs the current chair of the African Union, President of Comoros Azali Assoumani. Photo: X/@MEAIndia

Within a month of the Bali Summit, Modi decided to reach out to ‘Global South’. By Christmas Day in 2022, the External Affairs Ministry was busy contacting 125 countries around the world, inviting them to join a virtual summit to be chaired by Modi. In the months after the ‘Voice of the Global South Summit’, held virtually on January 12-13, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar travelled extensively around Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. From then, the G20 agenda began to focus on issues of interest to the developing countries. Consider the countries that Modi directly courted in the run-up to the Delhi Summit. Egypt as chief guest at the Republic Day parade in January 2023. A quick visit to Indonesia a day before the Delhi summit.

India, Egypt, and Indonesia were among the original architects of ‘third world solidarity’. The Delhi Declaration reinforced the text on all issues of interest to the developing world, ranging from debt relief to less developed economies, to climate and pandemic-related financial support, reform of multilateral financial institutions and multilateral trade.

One other significant development in the run-up to the Delhi Summit also contributed to its success. This was the expansion of BRICS made possible by China’s leadership. Till that point, the G7 were circling their wagons and seeking to retain control over the G20. After all, it was the G7 that created the G20. The only substantial contribution of the G20 till last year was what it managed to do in 2008-09 to salvage the trans-Atlantic economies. The expansion of BRICS rang alarm bells in G7 capitals.

Also read: G20 Turns G21 as African Union Becomes a Permanent Member

Intellectual foot soldiers of the West were quick to despatch columns pooh-pooing BRICS expansion. BRICS is irrelevant, bigger BRICS is even more irrelevant was the verdict. India should quit Brics, Western analysts wrote, since China has come to dominate it. China always dominated Brics. The point is India saw some value in keeping one foot in that camp even as it placed another foot firmly in the Western camp. Finally, as some European diplomats confessed over the weekend, if the Delhi summit had failed, there was the fear that G20 would become unmanageable with the G7 and BRICS pulling it in different directions.

While many in India were angry with President Xi Jinping’s decision to stay away from the Delhi Summit, Modi would know that it was in fact the G7’s growing concern about China’s influence that enabled him to secure a G20 consensus on the Delhi Declaration. Xi’s absence may well have helped strengthen Modi’s hands in his last-minute negotiations for a consensual declaration.

In the end, Modi kept the US and Europe happy with the many deals he has been able to strike, especially in defence; he has kept Russia happy, so much so that he was willing to get photographed with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, both laughing heartily and shaking hands; and he kept Africa happy, getting the African Union into the G20 (though the idea was originally China’s).

By balancing Big Powers and voicing the views of the Global South, or Third World as Biden would say, to project India’s global personality, Prime Minister Narendra Modi walked in the footsteps of prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He may not like being told that, but that’s what it was. ‘Multi-alignment and Voice of Global South’ is New India’s version of Old India’s ‘Non-alignment and Third World Solidarity’.

Sanjaya Baru is a writer and policy analyst.