India’s G20 presidency is the culmination of a year of milestones. The country has become the fourth to land on the moon, surpassed China as the world’s most populous country and overtaken the UK as the world’s fifth-largest economy. In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a red carpet welcome in Washington, DC.
To a degree, India’s G20 presidency can be regarded as a historic moment, announcing its confirmation as a major global power, an event every bit as significant as China’s 2008 Olympics.
But the summit will also serve to illustrate the many challenges India faces in realizing its commitment to ‘strategic autonomy’ in its foreign policy.
The voice of the Global South
New Delhi has attempted to use the G20 to draw attention to domestic policy priorities where it has made (or is seeking to make) strides.
This year’s G20 can be seen as a ‘green summit’ as India promotes several climate policy initiatives including an International Biofuels Alliance, ‘Mission LiFe’ (which advocates the concept of a circular economy) and green hydrogen standards. India is also calling for reforms to multilateral development banks to facilitate green financing.
Similarly, New Delhi is seeking to leverage progress in the development of India’s digital welfare state (through such initiatives as the Aadhar card and United Payments Interface) to create a multilateral funding body at the G20 to facilitate digital public infrastructure (DPI). This comes within the context of broader efforts to create smart, sustainable and resilient urban infrastructure.
Ultimately, these initiatives aim to frame India as the preeminent voice of the Global South.
Further to this aim, New Delhi hosted 125 countries earlier this year as part of its Voice of Global South Summit and it is advocating full G20 membership for the African Union (AU).
Nine guest countries have also been invited to the summit, including emerging economies like Egypt and Nigeria and countries in India’s neighbourhood including Bangladesh and Mauritius.
However, India’s G20 presidency can also be seen as a microcosm of the broader challenges facing the country’s foreign policy.
New Delhi’s longstanding commitment to ‘strategic autonomy’ or ‘omni-alignment’ is being put to the test amid the breakdown in relations between major powers, including Russia and the West, and growing fissures in the US-China relationship.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision not to attend has become a ‘spoiler’ to the summit proceedings, while it has been difficult to address the Ukraine conflict in the summit communiqué, with Beijing and Moscow more resistant than they were last year.
Ukrainian Presidency Zelenskyy has also not been invited to the summit, illustrating New Delhi’s insistence that the G20 return to its roots on economic issues.
New Delhi’s push for an expanded role for the Global South also faces geopolitical hurdles. India is seeking to strike a balance between advocating for a more equitable distribution of power in the international system while avoiding being seen to promote an anti-Western agenda.
This inclusive and non-confrontational agenda – embedded in India’s G20 theme of ‘Vasudhaivi Kutumbakam’ (‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’) – is being challenged in the context of an increasingly polarized and potentially bifurcated international system.
India is at risk of becoming increasingly estranged from forums with an overtly anti-Western composition, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – where India holds the presidency this year – and even the BRICS, which expanded its membership at this year’s summit.
Both organizations will now have three members with overtly anti-Western worldviews – Russia, China and Iran – while New Delhi seeks to align itself closer to the West through such forums as the Quad, Minerals Security Partnership and EU-India Trade and Technology Council.
How India seeks to square this circle will be one of the key defining features of its foreign policy in the 21st century.
A triumphal G20 for India?
Domestically, the summit will undoubtedly burnish the Modi government’s standing with voters. India notably deferred its G20 presidency, bringing it closer to 2024’s general election.
In hosting over 200 G20 events across every Indian state and union territory (including the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir), New Delhi has sought to reaffirm its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
However, whether India’s G20 presidency will be perceived as a success on the world stage is less certain.
The series of G20 presidencies held by emerging economies – Indonesia in 2022, India in 2023, Brazil in 2024, and South Africa in 2025 – will help to ensure a degree of continuity in New Delhi’s G20 agenda.
Many governments in the Global South remember the West’s deficient response to the pandemic and resent its preoccupation with the war in Ukraine, opening a position for India as their advocate on the world stage.
India is entering a period of strategic opportunity (or what Modi has referred to as ‘Amrit Kaal’). The country is projected to be the fastest growing major economy this year, while China’s growth slows. India also stands to benefit from US-China rivalry, as countries seek to decouple supply chains away from China, particularly in areas with critical and emerging technologies.
But can India leverage these developments to offer an alternative model of global governance?
India’s G20 presidency has offered some nascent signs. Its climate and DPI agendas are important – DPI in particular offering a potential low-cost, software equivalent to China’s ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative.