The absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping turned out to be a blessing in disguise
A strong Opposition is good for a democracy. It is required to question, interrogate, critique and where necessary, robustly oppose the government. But it must choose issues carefully, and not reflexively criticise anything and everything the government does. This is essential for the Opposition’s own credibility. When the Opposition’s attack is unwarranted, and lacks democratic generosity, even its valid criticisms get devalued.
I say this in the context of the recent G-20 Summit in New Delhi. Without doubt it was the most successful such summit ever held. The meticulous planning that preceded it, the elaborate architecture leading up to it, including over 200 meetings in all parts of the country, and its culmination in a New Delhi declaration where, in spite of manifest differences within members, a consensus document was accepted without a single reservation, are a tribute to India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his dedicated team of foreign minister Dr S. Jaishankar, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, sherpa Amitabh Kant, chief coordinator Harsha Sringla, and the brilliant back-up officers from the ministry of external affairs.
Beyond the organisational excellence, there were significant geo-political reasons why the summit was a success. India is today in a unique position where it has good relations with almost every important bloc in the world. Post the Covid pandemic, India’s ‘Vaccine Maitri’ established its credentials with many developing countries. The fact that the very first decision at the summit was to admit the African Union as a permanent member was a masterstroke, which also finessed China’s competitive presence in Africa to contain India’s historical, cultural and economic ties with the continent.
The calibrated stand we took on the Russia-Ukraine war has allowed us to have continuing cordial relations with Russia, without alienating the US and the West. The revitalisation of Quad, the grouping of India, America, Australia and Japan, has given a clear signal to China that its aggression against India, and hegemonistic stance in the entire Indo-Pacific region, has been appreciated by Asean and other southeast Asian countries.
Our economy, which is today the fastest growing in the world, has created a vested interest globally in good relations with us. We are major buyers, especially of cutting-edge technology, and our economic and numerical size constitutes a significant market. The India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor, announced at the summit will further contribute to the global integration of our economy.
The absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping turned out to be a blessing in disguise. If he had come it may have diluted some of the limelight on India. Of course, it was expected that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not come, since there is a warrant of arrest against him issued by the International Criminal Court, but foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, an old friend of India, did. The great divide between the US-West and Russia-China over Ukraine was also skillfully overarched through adroit drafting. India’s stock in the world is at a new high.
To attack the visible success of the G-20 summit did the Opposition little credit. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s comment describing the summit as “Inka G-20: their Summit”, was unfortunate, since there are some events which belong to the country as a whole, and not just to one party. There were other Opposition leaders who said that the G-20 was a waste of money, and did nothing for the common person. But have such summits not taken place when some of these very parties were in power? I still recall that in 1983, when India’s economy was far more fragile, PM Indira Gandhi hosted both the Non-Aligned Summit and the Commonwealth Summit. Both brought prestige and respect for India. Others have accused PM Modi of hogging the limelight and using the summit to primarily project himself and his party. Perhaps yes, but which PM would not? The question is of degree, but the very nature of politics is such that the incumbent PM does get much of the credit. When under Indira Gandhi, India defeated Pakistan in the war of 1971 and successfully contributed in splitting it into two through the creation of Bangladesh, it was her decisive leadership that was rightfully hailed, including by Atal Behari Vajpayee the leader of the Jan Sangh (precursor of the BJP), although it was our brave soldiers on the battlefield who actually fought — and sacrificed their lives — in the war. Even today, the Congress gives the entire credit for this momentous occasion to Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party.
I do agree that more MPs from the Opposition could have been invited for some of the functions and, especially, the absence for lack of an invitation of Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, was conspicuous. The crux of the problem is the complete breakdown of trust between the ruling party and the Opposition. In this process all that exists is unending acrimony, accusations, and a coarseness of debate, in the proliferation of which the BJP is also guilty. But foreign policy is an arena where all political parties should behave with greater responsibility, and give credit where it is due. Some Opposition chief ministers were invited, but in spite of the INDIA political alliance, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, publicly criticised a co-member, chief minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee, for attending the banquet hosted by the Hon’ble Rashtrapatiji.
What the Opposition needs to focus on is a narrative of its own. The elements for this exist. High GDP growth rates camouflage very low per capita incomes, the still very large numbers of the absolutely poor, growing inequality, record unemployment, inflation, authoritarianism and the intolerance to dissent, the institutional targeting of Opposition parties, ‘bulldozer’ justice, farmer distress, poor health and education infrastructure, inadequate skilling of our youth, growing bigotry and communal tensions. None of these are hidden from global leaders when they look at India as a stable and enduring investment destination.
But when will this narrative appear in a cohesive and impactful manner? The elections are round the corner, and time is critically short, and neither a Common Minimum Programme nor serious talks on seat sharing have emerged. Meanwhile, attacking the G-20 summit is hardly an effective or credible strategy.