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Modi Has Boosted His Image, But The G20 Summit Looks Set To Achieve Little Else | Observer Editorial

What is the point of the G20, the group of 19 countries plus the EU, whose annual summit is being held in Delhi? It’s a question that gets harder to answer with each passing year. As ever, there was no shortage of global problems to discuss: food security, debt relief, the climate crisis, disease, banking reforms and digital infrastructure, to name a few. The difficulty was the apparent chronic lack of agreed, substantive and credible action to tackle them.

One explanation is that the G20 is a disparate group whose membership is based on relative economic heft rather than, say, shared ideas, beliefs or experience. When discussing endemic hunger, for example, it’s possible Ethiopia (not a member) has a deeper understanding of the issues than Canada (a member). A lack of tangible outcomes and follow-through is linked to the fact the G20 has no permanent secretariat. It is, in effect, the sum of its summits, which too often turn into interesting but ineffectual talking shops.

Summit hosts tend to hijack these one-off occasions to showcase their countries and impress domestic audiences. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, is no exception. He has used the event to advertise what he sees as India’s leadership role as the “voice of the global south”. The world, Modi warned, was suffering a “crisis of trust”. His blatant use of the summit to boost his personal image and his chances in next year’s Indian elections showed how sadly true that is.

Modi was adamant that geopolitical issues, meaning Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, should not be allowed to distract attention from the wider G20 agenda. He refused to invite Ukraine to attend. Yet this approach was never going to work, given that key global south issues, such as the price and availability of grain, are directly and negatively affected by the war. Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s ports, and its refusal to renew a UN-brokered export pact, most hurt the countries Modi most wants to help. But as expected, the summit’s “consensus” declaration failed to condemn Russia’s invasion or its war crimes.

Modi’s efforts to concentrate on developing world problems was further undermined by a summit boycott by China’s president, Xi Jinping. It appears Xi had no desire to meet Modi or the US president, Joe Biden, both of whom he considers geopolitical rivals and potential foes. Biden used his absence to further strengthen US-India defence ties in talks with Modi. Xi’s snub was irresponsible and self-defeating, given China’s economic might and its huge overseas lending.

By insisting on making Ukraine a priority in his summit talks, Rishi Sunak exploited another absence – that of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. But the prime minister’s political focus swiftly shifted to a free trade deal with India. Modi reportedly wants a “quickie” pre-election agreement. Sunak needs a deal, too, so he can pretend Brexit is working. But the terms and scope will require a lot more work if, as with other trade deals, Britain is not to be sold short again.

Like Biden, Sunak also faces renewed questions about his courting of an authoritarian leader whose attachment to open government and key principles such as free speech and a free press appears shaky at best. Modi’s “strongman” style, Hindu majoritarian bias and disregard for human rights in Kashmir and Manipur are an embarrassment for any democratic country that wants to do business with India.

The decision to invite the African Union to become a permanent G20 member may emerge as this summit’s most substantive achievement. Yet enlarging the group could make it even more unwieldy and unfocused. Next up after India are Brazil and South Africa, in 2024 and 2025 respectively. Their presidencies may be make or break for the G21.

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