Political Economy

What the World is Reading around India’s G20 Presidency

Modi government’s attempt to portray India as a ‘vishwaguru’ with the visage of Modi alone on billboards everywhere has drawn a response from those watching. A lot of it is far from flattering for the prime minister.

New Delhi: As India prepares to host the upcoming G20 summit in New Delhi, several international news outlets have run features and analysis around how the Modi government is using India’s rotational G20 presidency – set to go to Brazil now – to court voters and launch an early campaign for the 2024 general elections. 

In a press conference in Washington DC on US President Joe Biden’s trip to India for the summit September 5, a US journalist asked, “And then, on G20, just cognizant of the fact that the State Department has blistering human rights reports out on both of the countries that Biden is going to – India and Vietnam – including passages about their restrictions on freedom of expression for the media, threats of violence, arrests, this sort of thing – is that something that the U.S. journalists who are travelling with Biden should expect? And are you taking any actions to ensure their safety ahead of that trip?”

Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser to the US President tellingly, said, “President Biden himself has spoken to questions related to democracy and human rights as recently as the state visit earlier this year. The United States, our position on these issues is clear. It is reflected in the statements of our president. It is, of course, reflected in the reports that you’re referring to.”

“Modi’s dangerous majoritarianism is too easily overlooked by the west, as the G20 glad-handing will show,” the Guardian wrote. The report compares Modi and his political beliefs with those of Donald Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and details why the West thinks it needs to keep mum on India’s democratic backsliding – it needs India to contain China.

G20 PR Blitz

“To behold the advertising and public relations blitz that the Indian government has mounted as it prepares to hold the Group of 20 summit this weekend, one might think India had been personally anointed by its peers, rather than merely being next up in the hosting rotation,” a report in the the New York Times said, adding that Modi is capitalising on the G20 presidency as “confirmation and celebration of India’s ascent – a rise to which he has fused his own image – as he seeks a third term in an election early next year.”

The Guardian wrote that “gone are the poverty-stricken families often living in make-shift shelters along roads and underpasses. Gone too are the drowsy street dogs that usually line every pavement. Slums and unofficial housing have been bulldozered and about 300,000 street vendors have also been evicted from central thoroughfares.”

Elsewhere, analysts have parsed India’s income and expenditure data to find the government’s claims about 7.8% growth totally misleading. “Indian authorities are choosing to dismiss inconvenient facts so that they can parade seemingly flattering images and headline figures ahead of the G20 summit. But they are playing a cynical, dangerous game. Slippery national account statistics betray a desire to wish away slowing growth, rising inequalities, and grim job prospects. The authorities would do well to recognize – and reconsider – the path they have set India on,” Ashok Mody wrote for Project Syndicate under the telling headline ‘Inda’s Fake Growth Story’. 

The report highlights that the latest data on India’s growth rate “not only confirms slowing growth, but also alerts us to the underlying causes: rising inequalities and job scarcity”. 

Another report in the Telegraph details India’s heavy reliance on the services industry which means the country is struggling to generate enough jobs to employ India’s youth. It points out the vast income inequality in the country where the “top 1% and top 10% in India capture 22% and 57% of income” and where education standards are well below par and malnutrition stubbornly high. “There are signs that economic anxiety appears to be breeding a generation of angry youngsters and creating toxic identity politics,” it added. 

Demolition drives

The government is reported to have allocated around Rs 990 crore for hosting the summit. This is regarded as a conservative estimate. It may be noted that the preparations for the two-day event have come on the back of mass demolition drives in the capital that began more than a month ago, rendering thousands of people homeless. 

The government justified the demolitions by saying the structures were “illegal” and that it intends to rehome some of the affected communities while maintaining that the drives weren’t linked to the G20 summit.

But many have questioned the timing with activists “claiming instead that the demolitions are part of a ‘beautification’ project – a campaign to rid the city of its beggars and slums – to impress foreign dignitaries,” a report published by CNN said.

“The image of India that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to project at the G20 is one of a modern superpower, a leader of the Global South, and a voice for impoverished nations. But the government has been accused of hiding one of the country’s own most entrenched and enduring problems,” it added. 

“What strikes me most is that India, the Indian state, is ashamed of ostensible poverty. It doesn’t want poverty to be visible to the people who come here,”Harsh Mander, a social activist who works with homeless families and street children told CNN. 

India needs to be internally stable to project strength

Modi’s dreams of positioning India as the leader of the global south, and himself as its messiah, have also been marred by another internal conflict – the ethnic violence in Manipur. 

“India is caught in a conflict that suggests it is in no position to serve as an international leader. Over the last four months, ethnic violence between Manipur’s largest community, the Meiteis, and its [third]-largest one, the Kukis, has killed hundreds of people and rendered 60,000 people homeless. Mobs have set fire to over 350 churches and vandalised over a dozen temples. They have burned more than 200 villages,” a report in the influential American international relations magazine, Foreign Affairs said. 

The piece contrasts India’s aims to become a model for the world, with its reality, “to be stable enough to project substantial authority, India needs to keep peace and harmony among its diverse population – something it can accomplish only by becoming an inclusive, plural, secular, and liberal democracy. Otherwise, it risks turning into a Hindu version of South Asia’s other countries, such as Myanmar and Pakistan, where ethnic dominance has resulted in tumult, violence, and deprivation.”

The report highlights how diverting troops to Manipur has reduced the country’s capacity to protect its borders from an increasingly aggressive China. At the same time, the internal conflict has made it difficult for India to become an influential player in South Asia by preventing it from “carrying out regional infrastructure projects and by saddling neighbouring states with refugees.”

Modi’s inability to adequately address the ethnic violence or ask his chief minister to mitigate the situation has also opened up possibilities for other rebel groups in India to launch their own campaigns, further undermining New Delhi’s primacy. 

“There is little reason to think that tensions will ease under Modi, and plenty of reason to think they will get worse,” journalist and lecturer at Yale, Sushant Singh has written, adding that he feared “the country could eventually confront … a million mutinies,” threatening India’s own being. 

“India is tearing itself apart”

Even if one looks at the strides India has made under Modi, the “leader’s achievements are overshadowed by growing authoritarianism, fuelled by personal and ideological resentments,” a scholar, Devesh Kapur in Financial Times said. The country should apply its expansive theme for the event — ‘One World, One Family, One Future’ — to itself, was his observation.

“From a railway police official killing Muslim train passengers to a school principal encouraging Hindu students to slap a Muslim student, bigotry is becoming entrenched. Treating people as second-class citizens erodes their dignity and contributions to society, while nurturing resentments that are bound to have pernicious consequences,” it added.

India’s G20 presidency is planked by a muzzled media and attacks on independent think-tanks and academics on one side, and “undermining of India’s delicate federal balance in an ethnically complex multinational state” on the other. 

“The weaponisation of the coercive arms of the state is being driven by the man commonly referred to as India’s second most powerful leader – Amit Shah, whose writ runs over large parts of the central government. But his own ministry has been failing in its core duties. For the first time since 1881 (barring a gap during the second world war), the decennial Indian census of 2021 has not been conducted, leaving the state without updated data to address governance challenges,” the piece in FT pointed out. 

No joint statements

Internal conflicts notwithstanding, India’s G20 presidency has also been marked by a glaring lack of joint statements issued at the end of the many meetings held in the past year, international wire service, Associated Press, or  AP reported. 

“The rotating presidency of the G20 is mostly symbolic and the summit’s success often depends on a final communique. This time, however, none of the several meetings held in India has yet produced one, with deadlock persisting over wording on Russia’s war in Ukraine,” the report said. 

A recent Pew Research Centre survey of over 30,000 people across 24 countries, conducted between February and May, showed 40% saying they lacked confidence in Modi to do the right thing when it came to world affairs, while 37% were confident that he would.

“The G20 publicity is also ignoring much deeper problems India is facing under Modi, like backsliding of democracy, restrictions on human rights activists, the jailing of dissenting voices and the muzzling of the media,” the AP report said.