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  Opinion   Columnists  13 Sep 2023  Patralekha Chatterjee | Many challenges for India as voice of ‘Global South’

Patralekha Chatterjee | Many challenges for India as voice of ‘Global South’

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at
Published : Sep 14, 2023, 12:19 am IST
Updated : Sep 14, 2023, 12:19 am IST

India seeks to champion the concerns of the “Global South” at a time when there are glaring fault lines in the world and within the country

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI)

As India positions itself as a key, if not the champion of the “Global South", a question comes to mind. What will it take to be the voice of the Global South now that the G-20 summit is over?

As someone old enough to remember the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a group of more than 100 countries, which openly said that the world needs a financial system that is fairer to developing states, the buzz around the “Global South” narrative has a familiar ring. “Global South” is not a geographical term. It is a geopolitical idea as numerous commentators have pointed out. There has been a longstanding debate about how to correctly describe the uneven, post- and neo-colonial patterns of development and power. Carl Oglesby, an American writer and activist, coined the term “Global South” back in 1969, while writing about the Vietnam war in a Catholic journal, Commonweal.

But the term really gained currency after the Soviet Union broke up. Today, “Global South” is used to a broad swathe of nations, poor and not-so-poor, who advocate reform of the iniquitous structures of the global economy.

Despite all the buzz around it, the term “Global South” does not figure explicitly in the G-20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration released last week. But it is popping up everywhere else.

None of us this should surprise us, given how much India, the summit host, invested in this loosely defined idea linked with interests of developing countries. Earlier this week, Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan described the induction of the African Union, representing 55 countries in Africa, into the G-20 as the “biggest achievement of the New Delhi summit.” The credit, he said, goes to India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The African Union now has the same status as the European Union, the only other regional bloc with full membership. Preparations began quite some time ago. India hosted a virtual Voice of Global South summit soon after it assumed the G-20 presidency. Around 125 countries participated in the virtual summit, held in January 2023.

Critics of the Narendra Modi government flag the dissonance between the government’s high-minded statements at international fora and domestic realities. But the fact of the matter is that India finds itself in a sweet geopolitical spot currently, for a host of reasons. The critical one is the rivalry between the United States and China.

The mantle of leadership of the Global South, however, is not a low-hanging fruit. There are many challenges ahead.

With greater visibility and clout comes greater expectations, greater scrutiny, and competition.

“Can India Challenge China for Leadership of the ‘Global South’?”, asked the New York Times recently. For more than a decade, the newspaper noted, “China has courted developing countries frustrated with the West… And as it challenged the postwar order, especially with its global focus on development through trade, loans, and infrastructure projects, it sent billions of much-needed dollars to poor nations. But now, China is facing competition from another Asian giant in the contest to lead what has come to be called the ‘Global South’.”

A newly confident India, it went on to say, is “presenting itself as a different kind of leader for developing countries -- one that is big, important and better positioned than China in an increasingly polarised world to push the West to alter its ways”. As exhibit A, it cites the “unexpected consensus India managed at the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi”.

A turf war with China for leadership of the “Global South” is not the only challenge. Being a champion of developing countries means having to live up to greater expectations from the developing world and being open to greater scrutiny.

Take food security, a dominant concern in the Global South. India has been blamed for exporting food price inflation. Rice prices have soared after India, the world’s biggest rice exporter, restricted shipments. India is expected to feed its 1.4 billion people, many abysmally poor, and the world.

“Much has been written critiquing India’s July 2023 ban on rice exports (non-basmati rice), which made up a third of its milled rice exports. Given that India is the world’s largest rice exporter, critics argue such a move could damage its claim to lead the “Global South”, as it falls far from its promises of addressing global food challenges when it assumed its G-20 leadership in 2023…” noted Jose M.L. Montesclaros, a researcher at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, in a recent commentary.

“However,” notes Montesclaros, “such discourses have not proven effective in convincing India to normalise its rice trade”.

A more constructive approach, the researcher argues, is to engage India and “recognise the complex balancing act it undertakes within the global food order, in particular, its dual mandate of serving as a reliable food source in the international food trade on the one hand while meeting the food security needs of its domestic constituents on the other”.

Being the voice of the Global South means embracing complexity. It also means being ready for more intense scrutiny from the rest of the Global South and other countries. Low-cost, generic medicines produced in India have helped save millions of lives across the world. Dr Yusuf Khwaja Hamied of Cipla fought Big Pharma to sell AIDS drugs for $1 a day, thereby saving many African lives. India sent shipments of Covid-19 vaccines to many developing countries during the pandemic. But in recent times, India’s reputation as the “pharmacy of the world”, a reliable source of inexpensive generics and frugal innovation has taken a severe knock because of a spate of controversies over contaminated medicines linked back to India. The affected countries are scattered across Asia and Africa. Several deaths have been reported.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been raising alerts. In August, the WHO issued a global alert regarding an Indian-made cough syrup being sold in Iraq. The medication was found to be contaminated with toxic chemicals. This is the fifth such warning against an Indian pharma manufacturer in the last year, according to media reports. The Indian health authorities have initiated measures to address the situation but India must show zero-tolerance towards counterfeit and substandard drugs. Too many lives have been lost. There cannot be a repeat.

India seeks to champion the concerns of the “Global South” at a time when there are glaring fault lines in the world and within the country. The Narendra Modi government, which has invested huge political capital in the project, has the dual task of building trust at home and outside. It must be able to deal with questions and complexities.

Tags: g20 summit in india, global south, patralekha chatterjee column