Unlikely Event

The G20 summit is not the crowning glory Modi hoped for

A man walks past a mural with the logo of India's G20 summit, beneath a bridge in Delhi, on 11 August 2023. Geopolitical realities have pushed the summit to the brink of disappointment, risking India becoming the first country hosting the G20 presidency that fails to issue a leaders’ declaration. ARUN SANKAR / AFP / Getty Images
30 August, 2023

Eighty-five percent of global GDP. Seventy-five percent of global trade. Nineteen member countries. Nine guest countries. Eleven international organisations. All under one roof. At the G20 summit, 9–10 September, New Delhi.

If there was a television promo for the G20 summit under India’s presidency, the panoply of images would be fast moving, with Narendra Modi as the hero of the story. The branding exercise must always be about him and stick to the narrative of India as a vishwaguru—teacher to the world—with the G20 as evidence. A visiting European journalist, based out of China, was truly perplexed at the ubiquitous presence of the G20 logo across Delhi, months before the scheduled summit. He compared it to how Barcelona had been awash with Olympics branding in 1992. China’s celebration of the 2008 Beijing Olympics would be a better comparison, as an Asian neighbour, but for the fact that the Modi government has failed to build the infrastructure, particularly around the main venue in Delhi, that it had promised to build for the summit.

Many readers would scoff at the comparison with the Olympic Games, but that bracketing of a multilateral summit with the world’s greatest sporting extravaganza was done by Modi himself. Inaugurating the International Exhibition-cum-Convention Centre at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, last month, he claimed that “whenever a country hosts an Olympic summit or a major event, its profile changes significantly on the world stage.” He went on to declare that the “importance of such events in the world has grown immensely.” This is evocative of the time when he was slyly complimented by his party senior LK Advani as “a brilliant event manager.”

All events tell a story. The G20 summit is a story in two parts. The first is about Modi as an individual and his unbridled ambition as a politician. The second is about India and its geopolitical standing in the world. Since 2014, we have witnessed an attempt to fuse the two, rather profitably, with India’s geopolitical standing being employed in the service of the political ambitions of one man. The foreign minister, S Jaishankar, a retired diplomat who is now a political lightweight with no base of his own, boasted last year, “There is no gainsaying the fact that Prime Minister Modi looms large on the world stage.” He may have gone overboard with his flattery in positing that Modi’s language, metaphors, appearance, mannerisms, and habits define a persona that the world has come to recognise. But it served the political goal of making his benefactor synonymous with India, if not above it, towering over other leaders.