India’s G20 presidency risks ringing hollow as Ukraine war dashes hopes of consensus

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned the usually sedate rotating presidency (of the Group of Twenty nations) into a branding tool to burnish India’s geopolitical significance — underscoring India’s emergence on the global stage as a leading voice.

India’s diplomats are now in a race against the clock to achieve tangible multilateral results at the G20 summit this weekend, which will mark the conclusion of India’s one-year presidency of the group of major industrialized economies and developing countries.

India has not yet been able foster consensus on a common communique for the previous G20 meeting in other tracks it has convened. The member states were unable to reach a consensus on a binding action due to Russia and China’s objections regarding the language used to refer to the Ukraine Crisis.

India, which had a successful year in diplomacy and saw its most populous country assume the rotating presidency of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), risks not having much to show for their efforts. This could undermine the credibility of the country as well as Modi’s message at home.

“What’s different about India’s G20 presidency and what’s amazed me is how the Modi Government has turned the G20 in to a nonstop advertising for India and his leadership,” Manjari Chatterjee Miller, senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, at the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C.

She told CNBC via email that “one of the risks” is that India’s G20 presidency has been elevated so high, and there are expectations of India to make concrete breakthroughs. “India is trying to use G20 as a way to bring together the Global South, and to offer itself as a link between the Global South and West.” “But there is still the issue of Russia and China.”

The prospects for a breakthrough at the meeting on Sept. 9-10, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping both absent, seem dim.

Since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant of arrest in March for him and his allies in Ukraine, it is not known that Putin has left Russia.

Impasse between Russia and Ukraine

The threat of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a major concern for India at the G20 summits.

India had hoped for consensus on several issues, from a regulatory structure for cryptocurrencies to resolving crippling debt problems for developing countries.

Reforms of multilateral banks are also part of G20’s agenda for progress in sustainable development. The African Union is also admitted as a G20 member.

New Delhi, despite its neutral stance on the Ukraine crisis has been unable to broker any joint statements in any of the main discussion tracks since India assumed the G20 Presidency in December 2022. It has instead only been responsible for non-binding summary documents and outcome documents.

Russia actually dissociated itself from the status document at a meeting in June on development issues held in Varanasi due to references made to the Ukraine War. China stated that the outcome of the meeting should not contain any references to the Ukraine conflict.

In a phone interview with CNBC, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri of Eurasia Group, the head of its South Asia practice told CNBC that “the original language was adopted by Russia at Bali G20 – and Indian diplomats played a significant role in achieving Russian acceptance.”

“But since then Russia has hardened their position, and joined by China, to say that we do not accept the original body-language, which is taken directly from the UN Security Council Resolution,” he added.

Chaudhuri stated, “Last time I heard India was still trying to reach an agreement about what language is acceptable for all 20 countries.” If they don’t bridge the gap, we might not see a joint declaration, and probably no action plan.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister who will represent Russia in New Delhi at the G20 summit of leaders in place Putin, has reportedly warned that there won’t be a general declaration made at this meeting if Russia’s position isn’t reflected.

The Kremlin claims that the invasion of Ukraine was a “special operation” as part of an existential battle against the West, which is determined to bring down Russia.

What is a domestic setback?

This could be a major setback for Modi’s government. It has hosted more than 200 G20 events in over two dozen cities throughout India.

Miller, CFR, said that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was responsible for the event. “It is brilliant. One has to give credit to him and the BJP, as they have turned an event which is normally elitist, esoteric and routine, into something that the entire country can understand, and be proud of,” Miller stated.

Modi used the G20 to promote local products, clean up the host cities and much more.

Chaudhuri, of Eurasia Group, said that “Modi is trying to portray it as a great acknowledgement that India has reached a certain level under his Prime Ministership.” “I believe the message has been strong but the reception is hard to work out and quantify.”

Modi’s biggest risk is that he will not be able to achieve any tangible multilateral results from his G20 presidency, after all the work and investment he has made. This could be done in an effort to boost the legacy and reputation of his Hindu-nationalist BJP following a decade of power and before the national elections of next year.

Subrahmanyam Jishankar, India’s foreign minister, emphasized this apprehension by highlighting the “unanimous” support of G20 members for the two outcomes India proposed during the Varanasi G20 Ministerial Meeting on Development Issues. He called it “the biggest achievement” of India’s G20 Presidency so far, despite Russia’s and China’s abstention.

Chaudhuri continued, “There could be a backlash or a certain amount of cynicism among voters, who may say that they have heard so much and we’ve spent a great deal of money but it seems like nothing has happened.”

Modi can still point to other proofs of India’s role as a global player, especially in an year when New Delhi emerged as a strategic ally for the U.S. in its Indo-Pacific Strategy aimed at containing China’s power.

India walked a diplomatic tightrope while China pushed to expand the BRICS alliance, a grouping of developing countries. The goal was to gain support for forming a broad coalition aimed a challenging the dominance of the U.S. over the world’s political and economic system.

Sumedha Dasgupta is a senior analyst at the Economist International. She says that India will continue to maintain good diplomatic relations with Russia despite an increased reliance on energy imports from Russia.