Monkeys are in abundance in the streets of New Delhi this time of the year, not today – they have been scared away by paintings of larger apes on sides of buildings. The capital city has taken on a colorful, if carefully choreographed, look. Murals celebrating Indian heritage, cultures and diversity, wild-life and topographical richness are at every corner, floral decorations and fountains adorn many roundabouts, streets are decked with streams of lights as if it is the festive season. In a way, it is, and the capital city is all dressed up and raring to go.
The G-20 Summit is to be held this weekend inside Bharat Mandapam – a sprawling complex seamlessly combining tradition, heritage and diversity with modernity and aspirations. Its halls are adorned with chandeliers that span the entire room evoking elegance and class, conference rooms equipped with the latest in global technology, walls are decked with miniature paintings evoking the richness of flora and fauna – peacock, the national bird, is depicted or alluded to everywhere. Quotations of scripture live in harmony with slogans like “Zero to ISRO” – a nod to India’s expeditions into the unknown. Boasted as one of the top 10 convention and exhibition centers in the world, Bharat Mandapam is a testament to the implicit theme of “Dream big, Think big, Act big.”
If India is showcasing confidence, pride, and conviction, it is not making any attempt to be coy about it. “Solving the Greatest Challenges of the World Together” and “Giving Voice to the Global South” – the two slogans that mark the official line – are everywhere, as are supersized posters of Prime Minister Modi that adorn the skylines. Another theme oft-repeated explicitly is Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (“The world is our family”). Every family has its fissures, but this one is particularly rife with divisions, especially in the recent months. Chinese President Xi Jinping will abstain, as will President Putin of Russia, thereby leaving India as the torchbearer for the Global South at the meetings – a fact not lost on anybody here.
That begs the question – what does Global South even mean?
“The global South comprises a large swath of mostly (but not only) poorer or middle-income states stretching from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands all the way to Latin America,” writes Sarang Shidmore in Foreign Affairs (August, 2023), adding, “(i)n the early decades of decolonization, it was not inaccurate to speak of the global South as a coherent entity.” With the founding of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961, the Global South got its institutional presence and a vision of solidarity premised on, among others, a mantra of planned (“dirigiste”) economies as the holy grail. It did not take long for the cracks to shatter the glass-house, its post-colonial solidarity was soon upended by armed conflicts between member nations, coups, build-up of weapons of mass destruction. Collapse of the Soviet Bloc, in particular, eroded the essential premise of “Non-Alignment”.
The idea of Global South was repurposed with the formation of G-77 – “the largest intergovernmental organization of developing countries in the United Nations, which provides the means for the countries of the South” to “enhance their joint negotiating capacity.” Its current membership of 134 states includes (nearly) all states other than China, Russia, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the US, and European countries. The sheer magnitude of its membership circle precipitated its irrelevance, except as a podium for high-minded lectures with little action. Specifically, this was no match for the aspirational strains of the emerging middle powers among the Global South – namely, Brazil, India, and South Africa, as well as China (a non-G-77 state).
That led to the formation of BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa. As we speak, BRICS is on the brink of a radical transformation. In the recently concluded BRICS summit the group announced it is adding six new member states – Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Ethiopia and Argentina. As Sadanand Dhume observes in The Wall Street Journal recently, these countries, together, “account for 46% of the world’s population and 37% of global gross domestic product (in purchasing power parity terms). This exceeds the G-7’s 30%share of GDP, … includes six of the world’s 10 largest oil producers and five of its top 10 oil consumers. It contains 75%of the world’s manganese reserves, 72% of rare earths and 50% of graphite.” Implicitly, if not explicitly, this is an attempt to provide a counterweight to the US and its allies.
The problem is that the biggest rock in the counterweight is China, beset with economic woes marked by, among others, a massive debt problem, grossly mismanaged pandemic, repression of minorities bordering on pogrom on a massive scale, near total control of all media, grumblings of discontent across the globe about its One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) machinations, … the list goes on. Reconstituted BRICS will be a mix of democracies (India, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa), autocracies (China, Russia, Iran, Egypt and Ethiopia), and monarchies (Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.). Ethiopia has a per capita income only 3% that of the U.A.E. Argentina has inflation north of 100%, South Africa is nearly bankrupt as a state, and Iran’s clerics are working overtime to keep the lid on her restless youth.
In other words, the new BRICS wades into the pool with a ton of legacy issues hanging from its neck. RIP. It is in this context we need to view India’s enthusiasm for G-20, an opportunity that goes far beyond a national branding boondoggle.
India has long memories of her ill-fated attempts at worship of the Global South. India was undisputed leader of NAM, till it was not, only to face aggression on her borders. The moral case of non-alignment in a bipolar world sounded awesome, especially when synced up with shared decolonized past. In practice these countries shared little beyond a reverence for “managed economy,” which lined them up alongside the Iron Curtain. These countries were considered, with some truth, too afraid to align with either major power but righteous enough to frame it in discombobulated double-speak. G-77 was never meant to be meaningful, and it never was. China overplayed its hand in forcing through BRICS expansion over India’s protests and made BRICS irrelevant.
Behind the fall of each lay a dichotomy – pursuit of self-interest is best done if “self” is well-defined and coherent internally, implying that a sense of “belonging” to a club is ill-fated for a nation unless she defines its rules. After decades of vacuous breathing of high-mindedness, it is understandable if a nation is more interested in a few tangible deliverables – viz., sovereignty of her territories, prosperity within her borders, and safety and freedom of her diaspora outside. If that disposition is to be reviled as “self-interest,” no soul is sacred. Non-alignment gets you nowhere in this regard, alignment with another nation you fundamentally do not share values of leaves you vulnerable at best, more likely subservient.
India’s current doctrine of multi-alignment makes sense in that context. India is still a young country, not an economic powerhouse yet. She needs allies to muscle up, without the behind-the-back gossip of a clique. What she needs is multi-alignment, not non-alignment. No question it requires more work than throwing your hat in the muddle, but she is hip to it. India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, once described the nation’s foreign policy as a delicate act that entails having multiple balls in the air while “displaying the confidence and dexterity to drop none.” “To the uninitiated or the anachronistic, the pursuit of apparently contradictory approaches and objectives may seem baffling,” Jaishankar said in 2019, adding, “(t)hink of it not just as arithmetic, but as calculus.”
Both India and the US have incentives to make it as fruitful as possible – show the world what democracies can achieve without having to try and find a shared ground with autocrats in the house, a privilege they have been denied within the precincts of the United Nations. G-20 is more of an economic conclave, thereby needing to account for its existence in concrete terms of shared prosperity and security. For India specifically, brokering admission of African Union into G20 as a single entity will negate being upstaged by China at BRICS, also render BRICS totally meaningless – something India can do anyway should she leave the block. India can burnish her claim to a global power position by brokering a working solution to Russian aggression in Ukraine, even if she stays out of it out of respect for her long-standing relationship with Russia. Already there are rumors that India and the US are jointly working on a competing infrastructure program in Africa that can make much of One-Belt gasp for breath.
This weekend is going to be a Mo(di) – Jo(e) show, with the Pu(tin)-Xi Riot left out of the field. If G-20, specifically India and the US, cannot score significant progress towards containing China economically and politically, they would be squandering away a perfectly good opportunity, scoring an own-goal even.