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The overarching outcomes of G20 summit

President Lula’s time in Johannesburg persuaded him that he could do business with Modi’s India as productively as he did during his earlier term (2003-10).

The overarching outcomes of G20 summit

FRUITFUL: PM Modi’s meeting with Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was quite productive. PTI

K. P. Nayar

Strategic Analyst

SUMMITS such as the just-concluded meeting of the heads of state and government of the G20 would astonish their VVIP participants if only they could hold a mirror up to themselves during such conclaves. Veterans from the media who cover such summits count on the body language of leaders, their expressions and demeanour as valuable inputs to correctly judge the ‘real’ outcomes of those gatherings. Formal briefings or readouts by spokespersons, more often than not, tell only a part of the story and sometimes contain disinformation calculated to mislead.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was the most transparent of all the 28 country leaders and heads of 14 regional and international organisations who attended the G20 summit in New Delhi. It was instructive, therefore, to watch Lula’s transition in his encounters with Prime Minister Narendra Modi between the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Johannesburg in August and less than three weeks later at the G20. Modi and Lula had met only once prior to Johannesburg. That was in Hiroshima in May on the sidelines of the G7 summit. It was altogether brief and was more in the nature of breaking the ice. When the two men met again in Johannesburg, it was very clear from Lula’s body language that he was unsure about Modi. After all, India had invited his bete noire, Jair Bolsonaro, to be the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations in 2020. For liberals in Brazil, which was deeply polarised by Bolsonaro, that gesture and the warmth showered on this divisive Brazilian right-wing leader by Modi during the subsequent three years was unforgivable. Besides, Lula remains true to his humble origins and uses his commitment to them as a touchstone of his interactions.

Lula is also not one to stand on protocol. He is impulsive. If he likes someone, the warmth will be obvious on his face and demonstrated in his gestures. When Pope Benedict and Lula met, the President deviated from custom and held the Pope by his arm, shocking believers around the world. For hundreds of years, the tradition of showing respect for the Catholic Pontiff has been to kiss the ring on his right hand. Brazil has the highest number of Catholics in the world. Judging by that incident, Lula’s frown and a brief scowl when he encountered Modi at the BRICS summit was a giveaway that was typical of the Brazilian leader.

However, by the time Lula arrived in New Delhi for the G20 summit, his demeanour had undergone a sea change. He was smiling when he met the host Prime Minister and was oozing charm throughout. His time in Johannesburg persuaded Lula that he could do business with Modi’s India as productively as he did in his earlier term as President from 2003 to 2010. It was unsurprising, therefore, that of all the bilateral meetings which Modi had on the sidelines of the G20 summit, the meeting with Lula was the most productive. And that includes India’s engagement with the US. India issued joint statements with only three countries after bilateral meetings hosted by the PM. One of these was with Brazil. The others were with the US and French Presidents. France is the ‘new Russia’ for India and the US, of course, is a superpower. The real surprise on that account was Brazil. The India-Brazil joint statement speaks of flourishing bilateral ties based on common values. A less noticed outcome of Modi’s plurilateral meetings was that India, Brazil, South Africa (IBSA) and the US have joined forces as the four successive G20 presidencies on issues that matter most to the Global South. “Together with the World Bank President, we welcome the G20’s commitment to build better, bigger and more effective multilateral development banks,” a joint statement by these consecutive presidencies affirmed. This may eventually be one of biggest gains from the New Delhi summit.

Only twice in the last 266 years since the landmark Battle of Plassey has the United Kingdom listened to India and done what this country asked of the Whitehall. The first was when India rose in revolt as one person and asked the British to ‘Quit India’. The second time was during the recent G20 summit, when India sought a consensual Delhi Declaration. The UK — like several other countries in the anti-Russia, Western camp — climbed down from its intransigent anti-Moscow stand during G20 preparatory meetings and agreed to a harmonious declaration that did not condemn President Vladimir Putin’s military operation in Ukraine. By consenting to such unanimity on Ukraine, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak exposed himself to grave political risk back home. Indeed, after he made a statement in the House of Commons after returning from New Delhi, the opposition Labour Party and the Scottish National Party strongly accused Sunak of throwing Ukraine under the bus during the G20 deliberations. Backbenchers in his own Conservative Party were critical — albeit mildly — of their Prime Minister for not upholding the UK’s hitherto uncompromising stand against Putin.

Why did the UK soften its stand and agree to compromise? In 2018, as India and the UK began restructuring their relationship, an Indian scholar in London, Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, was asked by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons to testify on ‘Global Britain and India’. Roy-Chaudhury cautioned the MPs — some of whom are in the Sunak cabinet now — that the UK was once among India’s top five strategic partners. “I do not think this is the case today. With India’s economic rise, several other countries have reached out to India.” Five years have passed since this testimony, but little has changed. In his remaining time in office, Sunak wants to make earnest efforts to do better with India. That calls for compromises in the Whitehall.

Antoine Levesques and Viraj Solanki, both experts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, have argued that “the tempo of defence cooperation initiatives in the Indian Ocean Region increased as relations between Beijing and New Delhi became more conflictual”.

The UK does not want to miss out on such opportunities. These are two concrete instances where similar rolling outcomes of the G20 summit will continue to unfold. Others involving at least a dozen countries will follow suit.


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