In a few months from now, India will take charge of the G-20, the world’s most representative power club – where leaders like Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi will sit around the summit table – giving New Delhi the lifetime opportunity to not just exchange ideas but to marshal them and make sense of the years ahead.
India has never done anything like this before, not in terms of logistics and certainly not in terms of steering a delicate middle path between world powers who otherwise can’t bear to talk to each other. It will be a dream role – a role several nations with much more money would give their eyeteeth for.
A dream role for India
It will be a role the Prime Minister will be called upon to play with panache, and allow him to put several ideas into full-blown practice—Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, or the world is one family. Or, as he told Putin not so long ago, dialogue, even with your enemy, is always better than choosing conflict—in the language of the forever millennial, “jaw-jaw, not war-war.”
India’s presidency of the G-20, for a full year from the morning of 1 December 2022, will be remembered by the world not because it leans in one direction or another—in favour or against the US, Russia or China—but because it can listen to all sides in this hugely fractured multipolar world.
India will take over from Indonesia, which is the chair for the current G-20 year and where all world leaders will likely come together on 15 November. I say, “likely” because it is still not clear if Putin will show up, or if Biden will want to sit around the same table as Xi and the Russian bear.
That’s where India’s famous negotiation skills will come into play next year. This past weekend, it has been interesting to watch two of India’s ablest politicians—both former diplomats who probably absorbed the cut and rapier thrust of negotiation with their mother’s milk (or at any rate, since they joined the Indian Foreign Service about 40 years ago)—explaining to their counterparts how India thinks.
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has been in New Zealand and Australia, while Petroleum and Natural Gas minister Hardeep Singh Puri was in the US, speaking to his counterpart as well as others in the US energy industry on how to best skirt the shoals of the energy-cum-economic crisis that has been upon the world since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Putting India first
In Australia, Jaishankar was once again asked about India’s reliance on Russia, especially its defence industry, in connection with India being part of the pro-West Quad grouping; while in the US, Puri was once again confronted on why India buys so much oil from Russia.
Both answers are valid for India’s self-image 75 years after its independence, which is that New Delhi will do what it has to do in keeping with its self-interest.
In Australia, with foreign minister Penny Wong standing next to him, Jaishankar pointed out that India sees the Quad as a grouping in the Indo-Pacific. As for why India continues to rely on Russia for its defence needs, it would help if the West remembered that during the Cold War, it had denied India the sale of military equipment while preferring to arm the military dictatorship next door – namely, Pakistan.
No one followed up on why India refused to ally with the rest of the West on a UN resolution criticising China for its treatment of the Uyghurs – especially when India has, until recently, been facing off against Chinese soldiers on the Line of Actual Control (Of course, the following day, India issued its own statement against China).
As for Puri, he spelt out why India continues to buy oil from Russia quite clearly (“we import 85 per cent of our oil needs”) and in a headline-making speech pointed out, “India will buy oil from wherever it has to.” That did the job of telling everyone in Washington DC that whatever else India may do to ally with the Americans – especially around alliances in green energy – it will speak to every dictator or crusader, as the case may be if it serves its national agenda.
Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at the respected US think-tank Rand Corporation, has pointed to India’s “ultra-realist” foreign policy approach, describing it as “sacrifice-rules-for-money.” He noted that it has served the Modi government well to play this policy.
Nevertheless, it would be a misreading of India’s approach to characterise today’s policy as a simple continuation of the “non-alignment” of the past. Perhaps, it’s more accurate to say that “non-alignment” served India well during the Cold War years and that the time has come to replace it with the 21st-century version of “strategic autonomy.”
Whatever one may want to call it, today’s demonstration of “India First” is accompanied by a consistent engagement with all the key players in the West – from Washington DC to Wellington and Canberra, the last two very much part of the US nuclear umbrella.
So Puri and Jaishankar are travelling the world to explain why India is doing what it is doing; in fact, Jaishankar in Australia pointed out that India’s military strategists will be noting how well Russia has been conducting its war against Ukraine (Pretty badly, one may add).
So what’s the message of the Jaishankar-Puri visitations, apart from the laudable motive of running up several thousand frequent flyer miles? Moral of the story: Don’t withdraw, but engage, engage, engage all sides.
That’s why India’s presidency of the G-20 promises to be interesting over the next year. When Biden, Xi, Putin and others sit around the round table, they will be forced to recognise that while they may not like each other, the rest of the world expects they will at least hear each other out.
The author is a consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)