Aakar Patel | Demystifying the G-20 presidency: What it means for India & the world

The Asian Age.  | Aakar Patel

Opinion, Columnists

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

Humayun's Tomb is illuminated displaying the logo of G20 Summit 2023, to be held in India, in New Delhi. (Representational Image/PTI)

If one cannot actually be a leader, one can always pretend one is 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 whether one is pretending or not and the media is in on the act.

The G-20, or Group of Twenty, was founded after the Asian financial crisis as a place to discuss global economic and financial problems. This means that it is a talking shop, unlike, say, the United Nations Security Council, which wields real power — at least sometimes. One key indicator that it has no power is that the G-20 presidency is assigned by rotation and changes yearly. This means that 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 G-20 is meant to discuss trade, but it includes nations which are currently in a trade war (America and China) or might not have a free trade treaty with the others. It is meant to discuss climate, but includes the 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 United States), meaning that an attack on one of them triggers an attack on all of them. And it also includes nations against whom specifically these treaties have been written (Russia) 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 absolute kingships (Saudi Arabia).

The wealthiest G-20 nation is the United States of America, which has an average per person income per year of over $70,000, or Rs 56 lakhs. India is the poorest nation in the group, and our per person income is a little over $2,000 or Rs 1.6 lakh per year.

Few know who held the previous G-20 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 G-20 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 the 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. While it is meant to be a think tank for the government, nobody is quite sure of what the Niti Aayog had done, other than act as a cheerleader for the government.

Perhaps there will be some real work in event management of the G-20. There is no permanent secretariat of the G-20 and the costs are shared by the current, previous and next holders of the presidency, meaning that we will likely continue to bear some of the cost for another year after we have lost the presidency.

Among the other things that the G-20 summit comprises of is 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 G-20 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 other G-20 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 the other G-20 nations for our workers and tourists is unlikely to come up or be considered. And this should not surprise us, because talking shops are there for talk and not for action.

Some 50 years ago, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had 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 G-20 summit next year 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 spectacle with little real meaning for the population, but the 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.