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G20 is India’s time under the sun. But only grand imagination, not realism, can transform it

At its best, this so-called realism appears to be a policy fix and at its worst, a small-minded vision.

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It is India’s turn! In case you missed it, starting this month, India will head the table of G20 nations. India chose to delay taking the appointed role by a year and will now end its presidency in December 2023. You might surmise that this delay was chosen to coincide with India’s domestic calendar as it moves firmly toward the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. It could be so. Whether it is the US, architect of the G20, or India, current occupant of its chair, domestic politics is set to play an outsized role in shaping a new international order.

The greatest temptation of the current moment is to confuse the parochial for the global and the national for the international. Early indicators point to India’s inability or even strategy to indeed play into this temptation.

India’s helming of G20 has come at a crucial point in global affairs. One, the twinning of a complex energy crisis and rising inflation has prioritised each nation’s self-interest. Globalisation is fast losing ideological momentum even as the world remains ever more connected. Two, Covid-19 and the global shutdown during the pandemic have certainly triggered a pause, if not stop, button on most of the developed world’s relationship with China. Finally, and above all, Russia’s—now nearly year-long—war on Ukraine is testing and changing the nature of alliances and antagonisms. The old certainties of ‘blocs’ and ‘partnerships’ are all too worn out. Look no further than Europe’s newfound isolation as the US chooses a relatively introverted stance on Ukraine.

Crucially, the once explicit but contested norms and ideologies of international relations seem to be up in smoke. It is hard to galvanise the world into any ideological fight, least of all in the name of liberal internationalism, as its brutalities and hypocrisies have run out of fig leaves. In short, it is a time of global crisis.

Also read: G20 presidency puts Modi’s India in global spotlight. Expectations are already high

China and the new century of crisis

Ironically, G20 was empowered and instituted at the end of the last global crisis. A relatively young multilateral forum, it was set up under Barack Obama’s presidency soon after the financial crisis of 2008. G20 is primarily focused on global economic arrangements. Barring the entry of emerging economies such as India and Brazil, and for all the glitz, G-20 is but a continuation of what is known as the Bretton Woods system. Forged back in 1945, it exclusively privileged the US dollar as the currency of global exchange, and empowered the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as creditor of sovereign debts and much else.

Seventy-seven years on, the Bretton Woods system looks outdated because it has a big contender in China. Officially now the world’s biggest creditor, China also overwhelms the World Bank, the other arm of the Bretton Woods system. With lopsided structural adjustment programmes as its centrepiece, IMF has helped make China the preferred lender for many African, and Asian economies. Recent western critiques of the IMF are certainly on point—especially on its bad habit of meddling in the domestic politics of debtors. Even if the West is, perhaps, belatedly waking up to self-criticism, the world, in crucial ways, has already moved on. If in doubt, ask Pakistan or Sri Lanka, two of the biggest debtors to China.

China may or may not be as strong as it was three years ago. Yet, as the recently concluded 20th Communist Party Congress indicated, China is set to look away from the West and is keen to focus on the Global South. For all intents and purposes, the so-called and much-touted conscious decoupling of the West and China is turning out to be a very mutual affair.

This is not to say that G20 does not matter. Far from it. The G20 is relatively more representative of the current state of global power play. Consider, by contrast, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which remains zealously hidebound to the Cold War architecture of the world order.

This makes India’s position and role even more significant, if also riven with risk.

Also read: Joko Widodo led G20 in tough times, Modi also has the responsibility of the underdeveloped

India’s realist foreign policy

In treading these turbulent times, one of India’s assets will be External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. As a career diplomat with up-close knowledge of China and the US from decades leading up to the current global crisis, Jaishankar’s ringside view and experience are unprecedented. While there is no official outing of a new ‘India way’, even a cursory glance at newspapers—to say nothing of India’s new strategic and think-tank architecture—attests to a new foreign policy outlook. Even though eyeballs have been on it, this is not just about Ukraine. India, of course, remains ‘neutral’ even as it continues to buy oil and much else from Russia. This is in continuity with the precedent it set with Iran by defying US sanctions to buy oil from the country. Yet, there are crucial elements of discontinuity.

For one, while many Western observers took India’s current stance on Ukraine as an instance of its old policy of non-alignment, the Indian strategic establishment cast it categorically as the pragmatic pursuit of national self-interest. This counts as successful spinning primarily because Nehruvian non-alignment was neither purely altruistic nor entirely idealist. But words and labels matter.

Second, in recasting its current position in these terms, India, under Jaishankar’s steer, appears a realist player on the global stage. This is to say, more than beliefs and ideas, the nation-State and its interests are the declared determinants of India’s internationalism. For realists, the international arena is understood not as one defined by our common humanity but as the prime arena of conflict and competition.

Finally, global turbulence is being navigated by India’s insistence that the world is ‘multipolar’, as it downplays the rising bipolarity of the US and China. Right or wrong, India seeks to leverage this language as many new acronyms appear for various multilateral engagements, from QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) to BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). These alphabet soups are hard to keep up with, which frankly doesn’t bode well for their power.

As India heads G20, it is clear that the Bretton Woods system is frayed to the extreme. The countries that saw themselves immobilised by the monetary regimes of that system are now closely economically tied to China. The Global South has never been more strategically empowered, at least in its collective bargaining position, as China and the US remain globally stretched and distracted by domestic demands. Yet, for all its pragmatic power, India’s newfound realism arguably may not be sufficient, let alone a winning strategy. Mainly because many countries in the Global South are now its competitors rather than ideological allies. Non-alignment, at the very least, symbolically managed to reduce the multiplicity of competition.

In looking ahead to India’s leadership of the G20, Jaishankar reinforced the new realist outlook. He highlighted India’s recent capacity-building experience by singling out the Covid vaccine rollout and digital infrastructure as the guiding drivers for India’s G20 leadership. It sounds all too aligned with India’s domestic policy priorities and even its recent achievements. Nothing wrong with that. Except that it is just that—a bit too domestic. But despite this, as many Indians are never tired of saying, India is big (on scale)! At its best, this so-called realism appears to be a policy fix and at its worst, a small-minded vision. It might add fireworks to a general election but will be a damp squib beyond it.

It is undoubtedly India’s appointed turn in the sun. For all the blitzkrieg and excitement, only if the enormity of the opportunity to shape the world is matched with a grand imagination will it truly become India’s global moment.

Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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