In Modi’s hands, G-20 summit in India becomes a global branding exercise


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For New Delhi, this week’s upcoming Group of 20 summit offers a chance for a global rebrand. The government may be planning to do so literally: Some G-20 invitations sent out by the host were signed not by the “President of India,” but rather the “President of Bharat” — a Sanskrit and Hindi word favored by the ruling nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But more broadly, under Indian leader Narendra Modi, the typically staid diplomatic summit — a long-running meeting of the leaders of the top 19 world economies, plus the European Union — is likely to be a full pomp affair.

Ahead of the event, the prime minister’s face has been plastered on billboards around the country. The message is simple: By hosting the world’s top leaders, India has arrived as a world power, with Modi as the person who took the country there. (The truth is a tad less impressive: The G-20 has a year-long rotating presidency; Indonesia was last year’s host.)

Certainly, India is hosting the event at a fortuitous time. Last year, it overtook its neighboring giant, China, to become the world’s most populous nation, according to estimates from the United Nations. Its future looks comparatively brighter, too: India’s population is far younger than China’s, and the government expects its economy to grow by 7 percent this year — besting China. Under Modi, the country’s ambitions are becoming loftier: India last month succeeded in becoming the first nation to land a spacecraft on the moon’s south pole.

India’s moon landing sets the tone for a new type of space race

This all is coupled with a growing geopolitical divide between the United States and China that is seeing Washington pull New Delhi closer — despite its concerns about Modi’s nationalist bent. In June, Modi was greeted by President Biden for an official state dinner during a trip to Washington, where he addressed Congress for the second time, joining an elite group of world leaders such as Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Benjamin Netanyahu.

More notable than who will be in New Delhi for the event is who will not be there: Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. Putin has not specified specifically why he will not attend the G-20 summit. Though he faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court due to the invasion of Ukraine, India is not a signatory to the Rome Statute and would not be required to arrest the world leader.

Relations between India and Russia are clearly not the problem, however. Modi spoke with Putin on the phone just last week, with a warm-sounding statement from the Indian government saying that the prime minister thanked his Russian counterpart for “Russia’s consistent support to all initiatives under India’s G-20 Presidency,” and that the two leaders “reviewed progress on [a] number of issues of bilateral cooperation.”

The Biden administration has hoped to push India to help isolate Russia, but Moscow’s cheap oil and gas remains a powerful draw for India, as do Russian arms exports: Roughly 85 percent of Indian weaponry is supplied by Russia, according to the U.S. Institute of Peace. A looming question is whether any joint statement made by the world leaders gathered in New Delhi will condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine.

So far, this year’s G-20 has not produced any joint statement. If the disagreements continue, it could mark the first time since 1999 that the G-20 has failed to produce a joint statement. On Wednesday, a European Union official — who was not named in coverage — offered a pessimistic view of its chances in briefings with Indian reporters. “The text, as it is presented by India, is not enough,” the unnamed official said.

The non-presence of the Chinese leader is a wildly different situation. While Xi is facing considerable economic problems at home that could reasonably draw his attention, Indian officials are portraying it as a sign of their rise. “As far as China is concerned, they often show a degree of petulance,” said BJP’s vice president, Baijayant Jay Panda, according to Reuters. “It may be hard for them to swallow that for four decades they were the fastest growing economy and now it is India.”

Tensions between New Delhi and Beijing have resurfaced over recent weeks: China’s Ministry of Natural Resources published a map that appeared to claim areas of northeastern India as part of China. These long-disputed areas led to bloody clashes three years ago that killed 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers — and the border area remains tense.

With Xi not in attendance at the G-20, any hopes of détente may have to wait. “Both the act and the timing underline the harsh reality that China is inflexible about its revisionist claims and that it is unlikely to stop,” Happymon Jacob, a professor at the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told my colleague Gerry Shih last week after the map was first published.

Indian officials have openly suggested that their aim is not to join the Western bloc of countries led by the United States, but to take a more opportunistic approach to global problems that will see them aligning when it suits them. For Modi, who faces a presidential election next year, taking a stance against China may be more about appeasing his domestic supporters than joining a U.S.-backed Western alliance of democracies.

Then there’s that name: Bharat. While Bharat has long been used interchangeably with India, its use ahead of the G-20 may be another sign of Modi’s vision. Modi’s supporters, including officials in the BJP, point out that the name India has links to the country’s colonial history. Modi’s government has pushed to purge not only these relics of when Britain ruled the land, but also the influence of the various Muslim dynasties that controlled the land over these periods.

India’s ruling Hindu nationalists push ‘Bharat’ as country’s name

If India’s name were to formally change to Bharat, as some local outlets have speculated, it could alienate not only India’s sizable Muslim minority, but also non-Hindi speakers. On Tuesday, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee openly criticized the use of the name in official Indian documents, calling it a “blatant attempt to distort the history of the country.”

Analysts have long argued that Modi has sought to tie himself personally to the fate of India. In doing so, he has proved adept at forcing other nations to move past his own controversies: Almost 20 years ago, he was effectively denied entry to the United States due to allegations related to religious mob violence in the Indian state of Gujarat while he was chief minister in 2005. Changing the name of the country to one that aligns with his vision of the country may just be the latest step in that mission.

But while Modi may be surging in popularity at home — some signs in New Delhi point to polls that suggest the Indian prime minister is among the world’s most popular leaders when it comes to domestic support — he may have far further to go internationally. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center found that a median of 40 percent of those polled across 12 countries had no confidence he’d do the right thing in global affairs, compared with 37 percent who said they had confidence.

Perhaps more worrying for Modi? At least 1 out of 10 in each of these countries could not offer an opinion about the Indian leader.


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