As India hosts G-20 summit, Modi spotlights his country’s achievements


NEW DELHI — The billboards multiplying across this capital city rosily portray the world as an inclusive family of nations. But they consistently show the face of only one world leader: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Faced with a world polarized into increasingly adversarial blocs, Indian officials hope to rise above the divisions as their country hosts the summit for the leaders of the Group of 20 largest economies, including President Biden, this weekend. Modi’s India aims to draw attention to its own remarkable growth and its role as a “Vishwa Guru,” or Global Leader.

“India has been showcasing India — a new India, an India on the rise, a brand India,” said Sujan Chinoy, a former Indian ambassador who now runs India’s main defense think tank and the largest G-20 working group.

Even as global tensions, especially over Ukraine, threaten any kind of final summit communiqué, the “branding” of India has become a central focus for the host country.

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“If you’re saying that we’re overdoing it because we’re [hosting the G-20] professionally, you’re sadly mistaken. We haven’t done advertising. We’re doing branding,” said Amitabh Kant, India’s G-20 coordinator, to a room of journalists in March.

Over the past year, India has hosted more than 200 G-20 events focused on a range of thematic areas from climate to education in over 60 cities touching all corners of the country, while sprucing up and illuminating monuments and city infrastructure with signage reminding Indians that something big has come to town. Even 10th grade standardized tests were adorned with the G-20 logo, a lotus — both the country’s national flower and the symbol of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Across Delhi, officials have had slums dismantled, including some adjacent to the convention center where this weekend’s main summit will take place, or simply covered up, often with barriers bearing Modi’s face.

Life-size cutouts of langur monkeys have been scattered among the half a million decorative plants placed across the city with the aim of scaring away their archenemy rhesus monkeys that plague so many parts of the city. Fumigating drones and mosquito-eating fish have been deployed to combat dengue.

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The facelift for the most significant international gathering India has seen in decades comes ahead of an election year, and Modi has been burnishing his image as a statesman in recent months. Earlier this year, he made a state visit to Washington D.C., where Biden and Congress gave him a warm welcome. In July, India virtually hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — a defense and security partnership established by China and Russia. Now, local news reports are buzzing about a potential visit by Biden to India again in January for the country’s Republic Day.

Part of the international brand making has been India’s efforts to have other countries adopt its digital infrastructures — which several countries have done. At the G-20 summit, a “Digital India experience zone” will showcase India’s various online payment gateways and digital identification systems, and delegates will receive roughly $12 in a payment wallet to try out the applications, according to local reports.

It’s a “brand new nation,” according to historian Ravinder Kaur, who coined the phrase to explain the repackaging and commercialization of the country’s identity into a brand identity. “These foreign leaders or investors coming in — these are forms of endorsements.”

Amid the talk of India’s branding, however, have come indications that some members of Modi’s party are interested in swapping the commonly used name of the country internationally for its Hindi name Bharat, which could complicate the repackaging effort.

A coordinator of a G-20 working group, however, cautioned about international impressions of India’s “excessive hogging of the limelight” as “a little excessive,” hearing from some delegates that India’s projection as the ultimate teacher fails to recognize other countries’ “spiritual” or “civilizational contributions.”

“If we talk about inclusiveness, we have to have our own appreciation of the wealth of contributions from around the world,” said the coordinator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the impressions of some delegates. “I feel a bit of nostalgia for our gentleness of the earlier years, which had a little bit of modesty.”

A senior member of a wing of the RSS — a Hindu nationalist organization linked to the ruling party — working closely with the G-20 meetings said a true global power wouldn’t need the spectacle. “We are right at the top already. We don’t need all this,” said the member, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about the event. “But the top man is very enthusiastic and nobody wants to say anything.”

Other analysts maintain that India is not only promoting its brand but also its priorities for the world. Positioning itself as a voice of the Global South, India has been at the forefront of efforts to bring the African Union into the G-20 fold. India has also attempted to convince the Group of Seven bloc, which includes the world’s richest countries, that poorer countries have priorities beyond the Ukraine war, such as debt relief, food and fuel supplies, and climate.

“This is India’s year. This is the time to showcase India. So India put its priorities on the table — digital public infrastructure, sustainable development goals and how to achieve them, climate and just energy transition, global debt — development imperatives for India and much of the Global South,” said Indrani Bagchi, a leading foreign policy commentator and head of think tank Ananta Aspen Centre.

In response to the extensive publicity for the event at home, she said, “tell me of any democratically-elected government that would not use an international event for political gain. It’s a no-brainer.”

Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh from the now opposition Congress Party, however, warned in an interview Friday that while India’s foreign policy is relevant to its domestic politics, it shouldn’t be an overt part of it.

“While India’s standing in the world should rightfully be an issue in domestic politics, it is equally important to exercise restraint in using diplomacy and foreign policy for party or personal politics,” he said in an interview with the Indian Express.

India’s stature on the world stage may be threatened by India’s own “contradictions,” said Manjari Mahajan, co-director of the New School’s India-China Institute. India’s global agenda of inclusivity and pluralism seems at odds with its domestic repression of critical voices among academics, think tank analysts, opposition politicians and journalists, she said.

“The Indian government wants complete control of the narrative about India and is intolerant of any entity that offers or can offer alternative perspectives to that,” Mahajan said. “At some point, these contradictions — between how you project yourself internationally as opposed to what’s happening domestically — catch up with you. Your credibility becomes compromised.”

Meanwhile in central Delhi, the Mother of Democracy slogan so prominent last year appears to have vanished.


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