Looking Past the Government Narrative Around the G20 Summit

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The Indian government has shown clearest intent to milk the G20 Summit for all it is worth for purposes of domestic propaganda in the upcoming election.

Was it air – or water? The recent G20 summit held in New Delhi can be said to be “maya” which, in the later Vedic texts, is said to connote a “magic show, an illusion where things appear to be present but are not what they seem”. In effect,  the same thing seems different to different people.

Some evidence of this is a resolution of the Union cabinet passed on September 13, and the same evening the resolution of the BJP parliamentary party at the party headquarters which was dressed up to the queens to felicitate its leader in an atmosphere of lavish festivity.

The cabinet resolution, moved by the defence minister, Rajnath Singh, on a day Army officers were laying down their lives in a high-profile sensitive security zone, said that it “recognized the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi giving the Indian G20 Presidency a strong direction…in the world”. The resolution further noted that “the outcomes of the Summit were transformational and would contribute to the reshaping of the global order…”

Briefing the media on the cabinet resolution, information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur observed, “The successful hosting of the G20 Summit is symbol of the prime minister’s efficient leadership and strong will and it is being talked about in the entire world.”

Leave aside the sheer ordinariness of the language in the hands of a street-smart young politician on the make who is not above incendiary speech-making, what’s announced here is the clearest intent to milk the G20 Summit for all it is worth for purposes of domestic propaganda in the upcoming election. Connect the dots and this is the story from start to finish.

Also read: Has the Indian G20 Presidency Addressed the Global South’s Economic Challenges and Priorities?

For the country, alas, tragedy had been enacted earlier the same day in the forests of Kokernag in South Kashmir where, belying repeated official claims that terrorism had been beaten back after the annulling of J&K’s autonomy four years ago, a colonel and a major of the Indian Army, and a deputy SP of the J&K Police, were mowed down by terrorists, casting widespread gloom.

The killing of an officer of the rank of colonel in such circumstances is typically deemed very serious. But this didn’t dampen the mood at the ostentatious event in New Delhi organised to praise the leader.

Building a consensus

The annual summit of the G20 is typically a fairly mundane affair when it is held in member countries on a rotational basis. There is no fanfare. The local media does not get down to churning out words and images of frenzied adulation, as the bulk of the so-called mainstream did in India. There is no felicitation ceremony to mark the importance of the leader. Cabinet resolutions are not passed in praise. The summit is not held in a specially constructed building for the occasion, such as a Bharat Mandapam, as if to stamp a legacy. The guests are not fed in silver plates as at a maharaja’s wedding reception.

A consensus document that emerges at the end of the deliberations summarises the outcome. This is a fairly routine affair since the world’s richest seven countries, the G7, had mooted the idea for wider consultation and interaction for the sake of international financial stability and roped in the 12 largest economies and the EU, besides themselves, in order to conduct practical, common sense discussions with a view to fixing relevant targets and aspirations to keep the world from wobbling financially, as had happened in 2007-8.

The warts were covered with green cloth over the slum areas, traffic was kept off the roads in New Delhi to avoid guests’ exposure to grime and dust, and to pre-empt any chance of a surprise public protest sprung on the organisers since the country’s economy has regressed for ordinary folk for long in the Modi regime. But with the media’s complicity, to dress up an ordinary annual international happening as a celestial event is estimated to have cost the exchequer some four times of what was budgeted.

It’s true enough that the 18th summit of the G20 in New Delhi became an unintended victim of the East-West confrontation as reflected in the Ukraine war. The G7 block, in order to assert its political primacy, tried to censure Russia by name and in strong language, as it has done in the UN Security Council and at the Bali G20 summit last year.

This time round the same approach would have wrecked the chance of a consensus document emerging. India is on sweet terms with Moscow for its massive oil supplies at bewilderingly low costs which the Indians happily trade with the Europeans at market prices, and make a quick buck as middlemen. New Delhi could not afford to put Moscow through humiliation at the behest of the western powers. There are other geopolitical considerations too.

India was thus in a bind – the prospect of embarrassment made worse by the fact that the Chinese leader Xi Jinping had decided to not attend in a bid to make the Indian hosts look small, and also to calibrate China’s position in relation to the US whose leader was hoping to meet Xi in New Delhi in a conversation of the world’s Big-2.

Eventually, of all people the Americans and their European allies came to the rescue. In recent times, India has bought massive amounts of military equipment from the US and France, and there is always the prospect of more. In fact, it can be said that the most significant two-way meeting in the two days the world leaders were in Delhi, was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bilateral with US President Joe Biden. The outcome was an agreement on more variegated military supplies – with India probably also agreeing to offer the US a military base, as may be read in the reported language of the agreement.

With the lubricant provided by luscious levels of trade in defence hardware, prudence dictated that the G7 block do not push India hard on the Russia question. The US also has in mind that India is on its side in the strategic confrontation of the age with China. Even so, the Indian foreign service bureaucracy, and others, gave an excellent account of themselves in handling the rigours of the rituals of diplomacy, especially when it was down to the bare knuckles. Being from this brood, the energetic external affairs minister S. Jaishankar knows his onions. Amitabh Kant, a retired administrator of diverse experience and the prime minister’s point man for G20, also appears to have learnt the tricks of the trade in holding his ground with international negotiators.

Here’s the thing, though. When all is said, was the G20 Summit an international event being held this year in India as nothing more than a part of a rotational annual exercise, or was it at the primary level a domestic event planned and executed as an instrument of India’s electoral politics? If “maya” of our ancient texts is something that is present but is not what it appears to be, then the  summit fits that description.

The current political dynamics in the three north Indian states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – headed for elections in the next three months are widely reported to be discouraging for the BJP. Should Modi think to bring on the national election as well alongside, in order to lift the BJP’s chances as he campaigns simultaneously for the Lok Sabha and state assembly polls in these and two other states, then the G20 summit – at which he played the showman – may be the perfect foil to opposition ingresses which are running up a political scare.

In his Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell retells the same story in different volumes but from the standpoint of different characters. The G20 Summit is the Modi narration. But there is also another narrative, a very different one, waiting to come out. When the story of ordinary people, on whose living conditions a green purdah was thrown so that Modi’s boasts of development are not exposed as dubious, bursts out in the open, the manicured image of the rulers is likely to be rudely disturbed.

On the count of the Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, education and standard of living, every G20 nation is ahead of India. The data, featured in a recent Hindu article, is collated from the World Bank Open Data and Our World in Data, by Rebecca Rose Varghese. With figures such as these, what aid to poorer countries can India offer on any viable basis? And yet, the crass propaganda is that the world is falling at our feet on account of Modi.

The other G20

Our leaders insist India is the leader of the poorer sections of the world community, nowadays more commonly called the Global South. Some 70% of the world today labours under an enormous debt burden on account of structural problems exacerbated by severe economic stoppages and collapse in the Covid period. India is also yet to regain the pre-Covid levels of economic activity and earnings. Its labouring classes, and those in the small and medium industry, including their owners, who make up a very high proportion of our population, are the most seriously impacted.

The Coolie Camp area was covered with a green curtain during the G20 Summit, concealing the houses within. Photo: Atul Ashok Howale

Possibly the most striking aspect of the summit visible to the naked eye was the shoving aside of the local and the world media. Even the typically combative US press corps did not have access to its own president. It was kept shuttered in its cage. President Biden too came under curfew rules – no interaction with the press.

It was a pathetic sight – and no advertisement for India’s democracy – that the US leader was able to hold his first press conference to speak about the summit he had just left behind only after arriving in Vietnam from New Delhi. And yet, there was a parting gift for foreign guests. They were presented a book of dubious information but nice pictures, purporting to show that India is the “Mother of Democracy” from ancient times.

Important participants- – leading politicians, civil society activists and senior professionals from different fields – were stopped from entering the venue on grounds of a flimsy technicality. And those who managed to gain entry were not being allowed out, as the senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh found to his dismay.

The disregard for the lives of others – meaning those not in the strawberry and cream bracket – and the arm-twisting of the media lest the reality come tumbling out, make up an important aspect of the lives we lead in India. Thus, coinciding roughly with the G20 leaders’ meet, New Delhi also staged a media conclave, the M20. This is a first in the annals of international summitry.

Perhaps there is something to be said for India, after all. A bubbling up of people’s sentiment is a prospect which is always only a step away from the surface. This makes the rulers wary though they have an impressive line of ardent supporters, President Joe Biden of the US and President Emmanuel Macron of France. There is also a too worshipful media at home. One of these has just proclaimed that Modi’s ratings have soared after G20. Sound familiar?