India’s G-20 Presidency Is a Golden Opportunity

New Delhi has the chance to shape the global agenda and advocate for its vision of multilateralism.

By , the vice president for studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, and , a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo take part in the leadership handover ceremony during the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 16.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo take part in the leadership handover ceremony during the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 16.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo take part in the leadership handover ceremony during the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 16. WILLY KURNIAWAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

As the annual G-20 summit concluded last week in Bali, India took over the group’s presidency from Indonesia. The leadership opportunity could not have come at a better time for New Delhi. In September, India became the world’s fifth-largest economy, displacing the United Kingdom, its former colonizer. Described by the International Monetary Fund as a “bright spot” amid a global economic slowdown, India’s economy is projected to grow by 6.8 percent in fiscal year 2022—second only to Saudi Arabia and much faster than the G-7 economies.

The G-20 presidency gives India a chance to shape the agenda for global cooperation as the world emerges from the shadows of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group’s importance is reflected by its economic strength: Its member states account for more than 80 percent of global GDP, 75 percent of global trade, and 60 percent of the world’s population. New Delhi is eager to project the presidency as an opportunity to underline its emerging status as a “leading power,” as Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has described it.

The theme India selected for its presidency is “vasudhaiva kutumbakam,” a Sanskrit phrase that means “The world is one family.” In unveiling the 2023 G-20 logo—a lotus, like that of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted that the world is currently experiencing conflict, the aftereffects of a “once-in-a-century pandemic,” and economic uncertainty. To lead through these challenges, India will bank on its experience contributing to the global good through vaccine diplomacy and overseeing better-than-expected economic growth—all while pushing for its brand of reformed multilateralism.

As the annual G-20 summit concluded last week in Bali, India took over the group’s presidency from Indonesia. The leadership opportunity could not have come at a better time for New Delhi. In September, India became the world’s fifth-largest economy, displacing the United Kingdom, its former colonizer. Described by the International Monetary Fund as a “bright spot” amid a global economic slowdown, India’s economy is projected to grow by 6.8 percent in fiscal year 2022—second only to Saudi Arabia and much faster than the G-7 economies.

The G-20 presidency gives India a chance to shape the agenda for global cooperation as the world emerges from the shadows of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group’s importance is reflected by its economic strength: Its member states account for more than 80 percent of global GDP, 75 percent of global trade, and 60 percent of the world’s population. New Delhi is eager to project the presidency as an opportunity to underline its emerging status as a “leading power,” as Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has described it.

The theme India selected for its presidency is “vasudhaiva kutumbakam,” a Sanskrit phrase that means “The world is one family.” In unveiling the 2023 G-20 logo—a lotus, like that of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted that the world is currently experiencing conflict, the aftereffects of a “once-in-a-century pandemic,” and economic uncertainty. To lead through these challenges, India will bank on its experience contributing to the global good through vaccine diplomacy and overseeing better-than-expected economic growth—all while pushing for its brand of reformed multilateralism.

Since its independence, India has been a strong advocate of multilateralism, actively participating in forums on issues including nuclear nonproliferation, global trade rules, climate change, and humanitarian intervention. As part of its presidency, India plans to hold 200 meetings of different G-20 tracks in cities across the country—making Indian states stakeholders in New Delhi’s global engagement. These meetings will mark some of the most significant diplomatic outreach that India has ever undertaken; they also follow a recent trend of India holding high-level meetings outside the capital.

India is keen to address what it sees as the world’s pressing issues through its leadership, including climate change, food security, health care, and technology. New Delhi has historically raised concerns on behalf of the global south within multilateral forums, and it will undoubtedly leverage its presidency to do the same at the G-20 high table. During its year of leadership, India is expected to highlight issues that matter for emerging economies: digital public infrastructure, entrepreneurship and innovation, climate justice, and affordable access to health care. However, challenges abound—principally, rising tensions among major powers in the G-20 and the credibility crisis facing multilateral institutions.

India’s task of pursuing global consensus will be a tough one in the current geopolitical context, with the world seemingly at an inflection point. Russia has grown ever more isolated in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, which has drawn loud condemnation from the United States and the West. The extent of the polarization within the G-20 was evident when Russian President Vladimir Putin opted to skip the summit in Bali altogether, leaving Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to fill in. The G-20 leaders still decided to jettison the traditional group photo.

Tense competition between the United States and China also persists, and hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping in New Delhi next year presents a separate challenge for India’s leadership. Relations between China and India have been on ice since a deadly military clash in June 2020 over their shared border in the Himalayas, and tensions show little sign of easing. Modi and Xi have largely avoided direct communication since then, notwithstanding pleasantries exchanged at the Bali summit, and Indian officials have repeatedly linked the normalization of ties to the resolution of the standoff.

India emphasizes a doctrine of strategic autonomy in its diplomatic outreach, pursuing an interest-based foreign policy rather than aligning with any major power. It will therefore have its hands full in convening the G-20 leaders in one room for the summit in New Delhi next year—and encouraging outcomes for the global good. Modi’s “today’s era is not an era of war” comment in a meeting with Putin in September resonated with the rest of the G-20 leaders, making its way into the final communique of the Bali summit. This sets the stage for India to act as a bridge between antagonists through diplomacy and dialogue.

India’s agenda will also have to grapple with the growing credibility crisis facing multilateral institutions. Many United Nations-led multilateral institutions no longer reflect changed geopolitical realities, as shown by their failure to forge consensus between major powers and prevent conflict. This has paved the way for other groupings to fill the gap; India belongs to some, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The G-20 is not immune from criticism, with Xi once calling it a “talk shop.” Some analysts have drawn attention to the failure of the consensus-based approach, with positions on trade and climate change often watered down.

Worsening macroeconomic trends—rising unemployment, increased living costs, food and energy crises—have exacerbated the challenges for India’s G-20 presidency. As countries turn inward to address domestic problems, it complicates prospects for international cooperation. From India’s perspective, the crisis of multilateralism is made worse by the lack of broader representation of developing countries and emerging economies in multilateral institutions. New Delhi has advocated a reformed multilateralism so that international organizations are more accountable and more inclusive.

At the top of this agenda has been expanding representation of the global south in U.N.-led multilateral institutions, beginning with overhauling the U.N. Security Council to reflect a contemporary balance of power. In doing so, India also seeks to bring to the fore developing-world issues; at the recent U.N. conference on climate change, it pushed for climate justice and insisted on equal burden-sharing between the global north and south. In a similar vein, India is expected to extensively engage its partners from Africa, South Asia, and the Persian Gulf as part of its G-20 regional outreach.

None of the challenges India faces in its leadership year is insurmountable. At a time of global tumult, the G-20 presidency allows New Delhi to exhibit global leadership. It will certainly need cooperation to succeed, but India has the credentials and the credibility to steer the world toward global consensus and away from polarization.

Harsh V. Pant is the vice president for studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and a professor of international relations at King’s College London’s India Institute.

Sameer Patil is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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