When world leaders at the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia issued a joint statement condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine, a familiar sentence emerged from the 1,186-page document.
“Today’s era should not be war,” she said, echoing what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Russian President Vladimir Putin during a face-to-face meeting in September.
Media and officials in the country of 1.3 billion were quick to call for its inclusion as a sign that the world’s largest democracy has played a vital role in bridging differences between an increasingly isolated Russia, and the United States and its allies.
“How India united the G20 on PM Modi’s idea of peace,” ran a headline in The Times of India, the country’s largest English-language newspaper. Indian Foreign Minister Vinay Quatra told reporters on Wednesday that “the prime minister’s message that this is not the age of war… resonated deeply throughout all the delegations and helped bridge the gap between the various parties.”
The announcement came as Indonesian President Joko Widodo handed over the presidency of the G-20 to Modi, who will host the next Leaders Summit in India’s capital New Delhi in September 2023 — nearly six months before he heads to the polls in a general election. And the competition for the highest seat in the country for the third time.
As New Delhi deftly balances its relations with Russia and the West, analysts say Modi is emerging as a leader who has been courted by all sides, winning support at home, while cementing India as an international power broker.
“The local narrative is that the G-20 summit is being used as a grand banner in Modi’s election campaign to show that he is a great global statesman,” said Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. “And the current Indian leadership now sees itself as a powerful country sitting at a high table.”
By some accounts, India’s presence at the G20 has been overshadowed by the highly anticipated meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden, scrambling to investigate the killing of Polish citizens after what Warsaw described as a “Russian-made missile” that landed in a village near the NATO member’s border with Ukraine. .
Global headlines covered in detail how Biden and Xi met for three hours on Monday, trying to prevent their rivalry from descending into open conflict. On Wednesday, the leaders of the Group of Seven and NATO held an emergency meeting in Bali to discuss the explosion in Poland.
On the other hand, Modi has had a series of discussions with several world leaders, including newly appointed British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, ranging from food security and the environment, to health and economic recovery – largely avoiding explicitly condemning Putin’s aggression, while continuing to To distance his country from Russia.
While India had a “modest agenda” for the G20 revolving around issues of energy, climate and economic turmoil as a result of the war, Western leaders “are listening to India as a key stakeholder in the region, because India is a country,” said Happymon Jacob, associate professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the University of Jawaharlal Nehru (JNU) in New Delhi, “This is close to both the West and Russia.”
New Delhi has strong ties with Moscow dating back to the Cold War, and India remains highly dependent on the Kremlin for military hardware — a vital link given India’s persistent tensions over its shared Himalayan border with an increasingly assertive China.
At the same time, New Delhi has been drawing ever closer to the West as leaders try to counter the rise of Beijing, and put India in a comfortable strategic position.
“One of the ways India has had its influence in the G20 is that it appears to be one of the few countries that can engage all parties,” said Harsh V. Pant, professor of international relations at King’s College London. “It is a role that India has managed to tie together the various opponents.”
Since the war began, India has repeatedly called for an end to the violence in Ukraine, and condemnation of the Russian invasion did not immediately pan out.
But as Putin’s aggression intensifies, killing thousands and throwing the global economy into chaos, analysts say India’s borders are being put to the test.
Observers point out that Modi’s strongest language to Putin in recent months has been in the context of rising food, fuel and fertilizer prices, and the hardship it has been creating for other countries. And while this year’s G-20 was viewed through the prism of war, India could set its own agenda next year.
“India’s assumption of the presidency comes at a time when the world is focusing a lot on renewable energy, rising prices, and inflation,” said Jacob of the University of New Jersey. “And there is a sense that India is seen as a key country that can provide for the needs of the region in South Asia and beyond.”
Rising global prices across a number of energy sources as a result of the war are hitting consumers, who are already struggling with rising food costs and inflation.
Speaking at the end of the G20 summit on Wednesday, Modi said India was taking charge at a time when the world was “grappling with geopolitical tensions, economic slowdown, soaring food and energy prices and the long-term ill effects of the pandemic.”
In his speech, he said, “I want to assure that India’s G20 presidency will be inclusive, ambitious, decisive and action-oriented.”
India’s position at next year’s summit “very much represents the voice of the developing world and the global South,” said Pant, from King’s College London.
“Modi’s idea is to project India as a country that can respond to today’s challenges by echoing the concerns that some of the poorest countries have about the contemporary world order.”
As India prepares to take over the G20 presidency, all eyes are on Modi as he also begins his campaign for India’s 2024 national elections.
Domestically, the populist policies of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have polarized the nation.
While Modi remains hugely popular in a country where some 80% of the population is Hindu, his government has been repeatedly criticized for its crackdown on freedom of expression and discriminatory policies towards minorities.
Amid such criticism, Modi’s political allies have been keen to bolster his international credentials, and his image as a major player in the global system.
“(The Bharatiya Janata Party) views Modi’s G20 meetings as a political message that he is boosting India’s image abroad and forging strong partnerships,” said Singh, of the Center for Policy Research.
India and Britain announced this week that they are moving ahead with the long-awaited ‘Young Professionals UK and India Programme’, which will allow 3,000 degree-holding Indians aged between 18 and 30 to live and work in the UK for up to two years.
Meanwhile, Modi’s Twitter has shown a flurry of smiling photos and videos of the leader posing with his Western counterparts.
“His domestic image remains strong,” Singh said, adding that it was not yet clear whether Modi could maintain his delicate balance as the war progressed.
But I think his international standing comes from his domestic standing. And if this remains strong, the international public is bound to respect it.”