Hype by Modi govt on India assuming rotational G20 presidency jarring, say observers

Observers pointed out that India assumed the presidency of G20 by rotation and it was not an achievement by the incumbent government, which is the impression it was attempting to create

Humayun's Tomb in New Delhi illuminated with the G20 logo on Friday, December 2.
Humayun's Tomb in New Delhi illuminated with the G20 logo on Friday, December 2.

Amarabati Bhattacharyya

Taking over from Indonesia, India formally assumed the year-long presidency of the Group of 20 (G20) on December 1. It is now set to host 215 meetings in 55 cities involving ministers, officials and civil society, leading up to a marquee summit in the capital New Delhi in September 2023.

Formed in the wake of the economic crisis that engulfed the East and Southeast Asian economies in the late 1990s to stabilise the global financial situation, the G20 now serves as a forum of heads of States of both member and non-member nations to come together and discuss pressing global matters beyond finance.

The G20 summit does not establish a permanent secretariat and the presidency is rotated annually.

India began its preparation for the G20 summit early this year and unveiled its logo, theme, and website in November. The theme centres on ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: One Earth, One Family, One Future’ whereas the logo bears a lotus symbol.

During the launch, PM Modi claimed that the lotus resembles a “sign of hope”, but it is also the election symbol of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to which he belongs.

Calling India the “mother of democracy”, in his statements and press releases ahead of Tuesday, Modi delineated India’s “agenda” for the G20, which is primarily focused on climate change, terrorism, food and energy security, and the global pandemic.

In his statement in New Delhi, he mentioned that India seeks an outcome which “depoliticises the global supply of food, fertilisers and medical products and combats pandemics which can be solved not by fighting each other, but only by acting together”.

Controversy surrounding venue of briefing

Prior to assuming leadership, PM Modi held a pre-summit briefing at Swaraj Dweep, which is part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, on November 26, which was attended by the envoys from across the world.

However, the Andaman and Nicobar islands are undergoing “grave climate concern” even as the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change gave full and final clearance to the ₹72,000-crore ‘Great Nicobar’ project to be conducted in the Shompen tribe-inhabited areas of the island in early November. 

The project, helmed by the government think tank Niti Aayog, involves the construction of a ₹35,000-crore trans-shipment port, an international airport, a power plant, a township and tourism infrastructure spread over 160 square km of land, which includes 130 square km of primary forest, forming 10 per cent of the tribal reserve area.

The project aims to increase the population of Nicobar by 4000 per cent in the next three decades – from the current 8000 to more than 3.5 lakh – marginally less than the entire population of Andaman and Nicobar which stands at around 4 lakhs as per the 2021 census. 

The Shompen are listed by the government as a “particularly vulnerable tribal group” and the land on which the project is to be constructed is exclusively designated to the tribe under the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation Act (1956).

Calling it a “planned destruction of the tribal culture and lives,” Sharad Lele, former member of the Environment Ministry and Tribal Ministry Committee, highlighted that this raise severe concern as it “not only displaces the entire Shompen tribal community but also calls for mass deforestation.”

According to experts and environmental researchers, the carbon cost of this project is staggering – the Great Nicobar Island has pristine rainforests, which are huge carbon repositories.

Ignoring these climate concerns surrounding the islands, the G20 briefing revolved around climate action. “Climate change, climate finance and technology collaborations; clean, sustainable, just, affordable and inclusive energy transition; accelerated progress on sustainable development goals,” were among the main points highlighted by India.

G20 Sherpa (representative) Amitabh Kant justified this choice of location by saying: “We have started our journey from Andaman and Nicobar Islands because there are unsung freedom fighters who were imprisoned in the cellular jail of India. And therefore, we thought it fit that many of our freedom fighters, including Veer Savarkar, who was imprisoned here, should tell the stories to all the foreigners and ambassadors, as well as leading international organisations and all the invitees.”

The hype around an ‘inevitable’ rotational presidency

Unlike any other nation before, India’s assumption of the G20 presidency saw great pomp and celebration – a 'G20 Kit' has been organised by the Central government which includes many promotional tactics. 

100 national monuments across the country, from the Shankaracharya temple in Srinagar, Kashmir to the Sun Temple in Konark, Odisha, were lit up with India’s G20 logo symbolising the motto. This was accompanied by a selfie competition, encouraging people to take a picture with the illuminated monuments in the background and putting it up on Twitter with the hashtag #G20India.

A G20 jingle is being played over FM radio channels, various other summits will be organised on the sidelines such as the B20 summit, TedTalks, and other seminars. The G20 themes will also feature in Nagaland’s Hornbill Festival which is the biggest cultural festival of the North-East, even as educational institutes have been urged to disseminate information about the G20 to students and several other activities have been organised to promote India’s presidency. 

Many critics have mocked the hype with which the G20 is being planned in the nation – a summit meant for discussing and generating solutions for global challenges. 

According to a Reuters report, “the timing of the summit, right ahead of India's general elections due in 2024, could help bolster Modi's reputation at home as a leader of international stature.”

“India has never contributed much to such multilateral meetings. India has always been a rule-taker, not a rule-maker. The current complex geopolitical situation will make it a challenge for Modi to shape international response to several crises,” say Rajiv Bhatia and Manjeet Kripalani of the think tank Gateway House. 

“Wonder what is the big hullabaloo behind the Indian Prime Minister’s presidency of G20.The practice in this organisation is to rotate the presidency. Everyone has his/ her day. This year is the turn of India, no cause for personalised celebrations of the Indian PM”, former Kerala finance minister Thomas Issac tweeted. 

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said the BJP was “staging a high-voltage drama”. “The presidency of G20 is rotational and India’s presidency was inevitable. None of these countries hyped the summit as is being done around India becoming president of G20 for a year," he added. 

The government of India is also sending out mass text messages to citizens alerting them of India’s presidency. “A historic day as India assumes the G20 presidency! A moment of pride for all Indians as the eyes of the world are upon us,” reads the SMS. 

“Isn't the G20 presidency given to each member by rotation? 16 G20 countries have already hosted summits. What exactly is the achievement here?” asked former Doordardarshan host turned political analyst Sumanth Raman. 

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