G20: The talk shop turns into a pageant, a spectacle, and an event
Few know who held the previous G20 presidency (Indonesia) or the one before that or the one after this one. But India, the poorest of G20 countries, is set to dazzle and pretend that it has arrived
If one cannot actually be a leader, one can still pretend to be a leader. It is like wearing combat fatigues and strutting about like a real warrior. This is especially useful when the audience doesn’t know one is pretending and the media is in on the act.
The G20 was founded after the Asian financial crisis as a place to discuss global economic and financial issues. This means that it is a talking shop, unlike, say the United Nations Security Council, which wields real power. One key indicator that it has no power is that the G20 presidency is assigned by rotation and changes yearly, meaning everyone gets it by turn.
The honour, if one can call it that, of the presidency is to host the others in your country and at your taxpayers’ expense. The G20 is meant to discuss trade but it includes nations that are currently in a trade war (America and China) or might not have a free trade treaty with others. It is meant to discuss climate but includes nations that were and continue to be the greatest villains in terms of carbon emissions. It includes nations that are treaty allies in military terms (Europe and the US), meaning an attack on one of them triggers an attack on all of them.
G20 also includes nations against whom specifically these treaties have been written (Russia) for and against whom these nations are currently arming rivals. It includes nations that have no borders and whose citizens can move and work and invest freely in each other's countries (European Union). It includes nations that are democracies but also those that are dictatorships and even kingships (Saudi Arabia).
The wealthiest G20 nation is America, which has an average per-person income per year of over $70,000 or Rs 56 lakh. India is the poorest nation and our per-person income is a little over $2000 or Rs 1.6 lakh per year.
Few know who held the previous G20 presidency (Indonesia) or the one before that or the one after this one (Brazil). This is because the presidency is not a position of power or prestige. But we are being told that it is a great honour that India has been ‘chosen’ as the current president, for a period of one year. We have heard it from the government and we have heard it from those it is associated with. We shall hear it endlessly over the next year, leading up to September 2023, when these presidents, kings, and prime ministers will descend on India. Across the country events will be held, particularly in states that are important in 2024.
To manage this at our end, the prime minister has deputed the former head of the Niti Aayog, the body which replaced the Planning Commission. Meant to be a think tank for the government, nobody is quite sure of what the Niti Aayog has done other than act as cheerleader for the government. Perhaps there will be some real work in event management of the G20.
There is no permanent secretariat of the G20 and the costs are shared by the current, previous and next holders of the presidency, meaning we will likely continue to bear some of the cost for another year after we have lost the presidency.Among other things, the G20 summit comprises a meeting of civil society or NGOs. It will be interesting to see what India has to say to these groups that it has waged war on since 2014, while they continue to work in many of the other G20 nations (the democracies among them, at least).
Other meetings include those with parliamentarians and perhaps India’s opposition might be given the chance at last to speak, though we will see if that happens. It might well be the case that they will continue to be muzzled and that our leader will use the opportunity to give the other G20 parliamentarians the benefit of his wisdom. We could be in for some dazzling words on freedom of expression and tolerance.
Our actual problems are less likely to be discussed. China does not want to talk about the border issue even with us, let alone with third parties. The problem in Ladakh will continue. Easier and cheaper access to these nations for our workers and tourists to other G20 nations is unlikely to come up or be considered. And this should not surprise us because talking shops are for talk and not for action.
Some 50 years ago, ZA Bhutto arranged an Islamic summit that was designed to show Pakistan as the leader of the Islamic world. It was no such thing of course but what is wrong with some harmless pretending?
The G20 summit will give our leader the chance to do event management on a truly global scale and one looks forward to it very much. It will be a spectacle with little real meaning for the population but entertainment will be assured. There will be no end to the claim that this is India’s moment to lead the world, or at least lead it till the next leader takes over.
(Views are personal)