The rare chances G20 presidency offers India

The G20 presidency is scheduled to move from Indonesia to India in December 2022. Photo: Reuters
The G20 presidency is scheduled to move from Indonesia to India in December 2022. Photo: Reuters


As part of the G20 tradition, India’s presidency will also have to come up with its own policy formulation

This article is appearing two days after India celebrated the 75th anniversary of its independence from colonial rule. The huge strides made during this time by a newly demarcated and impoverished nation-state, which Western commentators had frequently condemned to disintegration as an inevitable eventuality, is indeed remarkable. Apart from the economic, scientific and developmental progress made over the years, India’s most creditable achievement is its democratic temper, with warts and all, that included universal adult franchise from the get-go.

With all the past accomplishments having received wall-to-wall coverage, it is perhaps necessary to list some of the immediate tasks that lie ahead. The most urgent is locating India’s place in the global community, especially its historical role as a beacon of moderation and practitioner of an inclusive economic development model. This has become especially critical for a world that is in the throes of a renewed security crisis and visibly at odds with the current economic orthodoxy.

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The first indication of a challenge—which could become a future opportunity for India—will emerge in Bali, Indonesia, on 15 November during the G20 leaders’ summit. This meeting will provide some clues about the West’s stipulations for sharing the same table with Russia and China, both important G20 members.

The G20 presidency is scheduled to move from Indonesia to India in December 2022, providing the country’s leadership with an opportunity to play a significant role in mediating the conflicting security ambitions of major powers and finding common ground between divergent economic pathways. This is going to be a tightrope walk, but provides India with a rare opening to dissipate the cloud of scepticism that hangs over the G20’s myriad unfulfilled promises as well as, if possible, setting new paradigms for it. Simultaneously, India will have to provide continuity to the policy trifecta set by Indonesia of global health architecture, a digital transformation and a sustainable energy transition. All three individual components are also part of India’s ambitious domestic growth programme and therefore do not present major policy conflicts for the country’s leadership.

In addition, as part of the G20 tradition, India’s presidency will also have to come up with its own policy formulation. For example, the immediately preceding Italian presidency’s agenda rested on the three pillars of ‘people, planet and prosperity’. The Saudi presidency, just before that, also had three generic objectives: empowering people, safeguarding the planet and shaping new frontiers. This G20 presidency is admittedly going to be high-wire act for India: balancing a global leadership role which demands geopolitical equipoise between antagonistic power centres, while also carrying forward the Indonesian agenda and melding it with India’s own policy formulation.

This calls for some measure of bold ambition, but also provides India’s leadership an opportunity to put some of our development objectives on the table. In fact, departing from the emerging trend of sticking three non-specific ideas to the big board and achieving nothing, India could pursue one overarching idea that will encompass all its development aspirations: multilateralism.

It speaks directly, for example, to India’s stand on food production and trade. India is not, by any stretch of imagination, among the world’s Top Five wheat exporters. Yet, when the country banned wheat exports in mid-May, due to a heat wave spoiling the standing crop, there was an outcry from rich nations. The clamour refused to abate even after India promised that it would continue government-to-government wheat supplies.

At the heart of this controversy lies the warped agriculture trade system in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which is not only misaligned with food security mechanisms in poor nations, but is also leveraged by developed countries to perpetuate historical agricultural trade inequities. Every time developing nations demand a course correction in the WTO, advanced economies stall it by introducing a new issue for agreement as a quid pro quo; it is another matter that this trade-off never materializes. The problem gets compounded when trade representatives of rich nations at WTO ministerials ignore their leaders’ lofty G20 statements. A mechanism must be built to ensure that G20 agreements get transmitted to multilateral institutions for wider discussions and agreements.

The second issue emerges from that and directly aligns with India’s global aspirations: reforms in global multilateral institutions, especially in the Bretton Woods institutions. Both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and United Nations Security Council are at variance with the emerging world order and both need deep reforms: the IMF in its shareholding structure and the Security Council in its exclusionary structure. This is not only important for the global security architecture (an inclusive and expanded Security Council, for example, may have been able to avert the Russia-Ukraine war), but also helps address India’s security concerns on both its western and eastern extremities.

Robust multilateralism also holds solutions for India’s concerns and hopes of global health equity, facilitating a green energy transition and universal digital connectivity. But none of that will be possible unless the G20 develops instruments that convert communiques into action. India can become the catalyst for that change.

Rajrishi Singhal is a policy consultant and journalist. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.

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