NEW DELHI - The 2023 Indian Presidency turned the lead-up to the G20 into an 11-month festival highlighting the rise of Indian power. Two hundred Conferences were held in 60 cities in every Indian state to create what Chief Coordinator, Harsh V. Shringla, called a “Grassroots Participation Movement”.
Three themes dominated the Indian messaging from the moment India assumed the presidency on Dec. 1, 2022, up to the Sep 9-10 summit: Development, inclusivity, and the asserting of indigenous Indian identity.
Indian technological achievements were showcased in a special display hall at the summit, to be opened to the public subsequently. Indian pride swelled for technologies that service the entire nation of 1.4 billion: The UPI touchless payment app, Aadhar digital ID cards that enable Indians to open their first bank account and receive government benefit schemes without paying bribes, online schoolbooks, healthcare data, and Covid monitoring. India intends to export many of these technologies, and in the era of AI, they realize that data sets of 1.4 billion people are a goldmine of their own.
An important economic corridor was announced at the G20 which links India via the Middle East and Europe to Europe. Despite warm personal relations between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel was not invited to the G20 as an observer state, while Egypt, UAE, and Oman were among the invitees.
In the name of inclusivity, there was much talk about development in the “Global South”. PM Modi made a point of ensuring the African Union was invited to the G-20 summit. The Sanskrit maxim “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” - The world is one family – was constantly evoked by Indian officials, and the G-20 theme was “One Earth, One Family, One Future”.
Indigenous Indian identity was an even more ubiquitous theme. The Sanskrit name Bharat, rather than India, appeared on the table by PM Modi’s seat. It is yet unclear whether India will officially change its name.
A crafts fair at the summit showcased traditional art. Chrome leaflets showcased yoga, and Ayurveda medicine, and even declared India to be the mother of Democracy, with indigenous democratic principles extending back to Vedic times. Opposition media pounced on this theme as uneducational, fake history.
Although official voices did not dwell on it, the theme of indigenous Indian identity carries anti-European undertones. Under the rubric of de-colonizing the Indian mentality, Indian Nationalists of Modi’s BJP government are making a statement that they will now determine their destiny and stop obeying orders from white men.
Two G-20 Summit Initiatives
Two central initiatives were announced with great fanfare. Neither was new, but both are now prioritized and moving forward full throttle.
At center stage was the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor. The proposed corridor will carry Indian goods to Europe from the port of Mumbai to the port of Jebel Ali port in UAE, and from there by freight trains via Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel, to the Indian-owned port at Haifa and from there to Europe, most probably to the Chinese owned port at Piraeus, Greece. This route will cut transport time down by forty percent.
The corridor will also include gas pipelines, hydrogen energy pipelines, electricity cables, and fiber-optic cables.
Funding details have yet to be finalized, but USA and EU countries have pledged, and the official MOU states that parties will meet again within 60 days to lay out a timetable for the corridor’s projects.
The second initiative was the Trans-African Corridor between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, and Angola aimed at improving the transport of raw materials including copper ore.
Between the lines of The Joint Declaration
The 37 pages of the G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration are a rosy document that seems to promise a plot in Eden for all mankind. The leaders of the G-20’s 40 delegations: 19 largest economies, the EU, the African Union, 9 observer nations, and 10 international organizations, all pledged to toil for the world’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), green development, technological transformation, gender equality, and much more. The statements and speeches of the world leaders at the two-day summit echoed these themes.
But reading between the lines of the document and the speeches and cross-referencing the two key initiatives announced at the summit reveals the greater forces at play. They could always not be mentioned by name, but they haunted the summit constantly.
The first present absence was Russia, and its leader, Vladimir Putin, was absent from the summit. Beginning with a pre-summit speech by US Secretary of Treasury, Janet Yellen, televised from the US embassy, world leaders engaged time and again in diplomatic exorcism, attacking Russia for waging an aggressive war that harmed crucial global food security, including dramatic damage to grain and fertilizer supplies from Russia and Ukraine.
The few notable exceptions to the rule included Turkey, South Africa, and the host India, which is dependent on Russia for cheap energy and weapons. While pro-American sentiment is rising in India, this dependence will not end in the foreseeable future, leading India to obstruct and defy any sanctions placed on Russia. The drama around Russia was so intense that there was initial doubt if a joint declaration would be issued, due to India insisting on what was perceived as language too forgiving toward Russia.
Another presence in the room was China, whose President Xi Jinping was absent as well from the summit. Time and again world leaders rose and heaped praises on India and lauded the revolutionary potential of the corridor initiatives. And while it was clear to all those present what the revolution was, who was staging it, and against whom, only journalists could say it out loud. Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper The Print tweeted it out succinctly: “India-Middle East-Europe Corridor is a brilliant idea…It throws a gauntlet at Xi Jinping & his BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). Finally (India) has a counter”.
India was not only breaking out of a Chinese stranglehold. To quote Gutpa’s next tweet: “Besides challenging China’s BRI, the Ind-ME-Europe Corridor lays down stark choices for Pakistan. If it wants to join the global mainstream it must bury the enmity of India and become a normal state or be a permanent Chinese vassal. Days of presuming Saudi-UAE patronage are gone.”
The second absence in the room was Israel. While Israel’s name was mentioned, at times, in the context of the corridor, White House Spokesperson Jake Sullivan stated that the project was not a “precursor” to normalization efforts between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but Israel’s inclusion was nonetheless “significant”. Other heads of state like French President, Emmanuel Macron, made sure not to mention Israel at all while discussing the corridor in their press addresses.
Maps from before the summit usually point to Piraeus as the corridor’s target port in Europe, but Greece was not invited to the summit as an observer and her name was not to be mentioned. PM Modi visited Greece merely two weeks ago, and yet Italy signed the official MOU, possibly signaling a share for Italian ports.
Despite warm personal relations between PM Modi and PM Netanyahu, Israel was not invited to the G-20 as an observer state, while Egypt, UAE, and Oman were among the invitees. One reason may be the reluctance of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) to be seen publicly with Netanyahu. Conveniently enough, word is out that Netanyahu has been invited for an official visit to India, later, at a time yet to be determined.
Prime Minister Netanyahu had pre-empted any doubts with a brief video message issued Saturday night. In it, he praised the declaration of the corridor at the G-20 summit and thanked the G-20 leadership headed by President Joe Biden. He stated that the Israeli government had been in intense negotiations with the Biden administration over the corridor, and it was a revolutionary achievement for Israel, its diplomatic stature, and its prominence in global trade.