At G20, skilful diplomacy to clear messaging: How India forged consensus on the declaration

Sep 10, 2023 04:46 AM IST

India achieved a consensus on the historic Delhi Declaration of the G20 by leveraging diplomacy, goodwill, personal relationships, and straightforward messaging

Adroit diplomacy, the leverage provided by long-standing goodwill, IOUs and personal relationships, and straightforward messaging of what the or-else option would involve — these were some of the levers India pulled to achieve a consensus on the historic Delhi Declaration of the G20, which was announced just a few hours after the leaders’ summit started on the morning of Saturday September 9, on Day 1 of the two-day meet.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds hands with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, US President Joe Biden and World Bank President Ajay Banga during the G20 Leaders' Summit, at Bharat Mandapam, Pragati Maidan, in New Delhi on Saturday. (ANI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds hands with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, US President Joe Biden and World Bank President Ajay Banga during the G20 Leaders' Summit, at Bharat Mandapam, Pragati Maidan, in New Delhi on Saturday. (ANI)

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HT spoke to diplomats and officials from several G20 countries to understand how India achieved a diplomatic feat that many considered impossible in the context of Russia wanting to walk back the language of the Bali G20 declaration that spoke of its aggression in Ukraine, and China deciding to be obstructionist.

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India told the West that flexibility over terminology on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine would help G20 arrive at a declaration. It also indicated that if the Indian presidency failed in the quest, not only did the summit risk being a failure, there was a bigger risk of China’s efforts to carve out an alternative international power structure gaining traction.

The contrasting images of a failed G20 and an energised Brics was on offer. But if it was flexible, the West was told, not only would this danger be averted, on substantive issues that went beyond the terminology used to describe the war in Ukraine, the West and the Global South could nuance their positions about the implications of the war. The US, which has been invested in seeing the success of the Indian presidency, saw merit in the argument and displayed unexpected flexibility to support Delhi.

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India also told Russia that it would accommodate Moscow’s concerns by ensuring that the declaration did not include language that explicitly spoke about its aggression in Ukraine, and adopt a more generic framing which spoke about the need for “all States” to refrain from the “threat or use of force” to acquire territory not just against the territorial integrity and sovereignty but also the “political independence” of any state. In return, it was incumbent on Moscow not just to agree to the text of the declaration but also convince its friend, Beijing, to play along. If it still did not agree, it was for Moscow to understand how it would perceived in India and the global South. Russian President Vladimir Putin understood what his old friend was offering, a chance at partial international redemption in return for flexibility, and took it.

India then worked with the past and future G20 presidencies, of Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa. Both the Brics Summit in Johannesburg and the ASEAN Summit in Jakarta offered opportunities for in-person engagement with these countries at the highest levels. Just as Delhi was invested in seeing the Bali summit succeed last year, Brasilia and Pretoria were invested in seeing the Delhi summit succeed. And Jakarta knew it owed Delhi a debt for its stellar role in carving out a consensus last year. In addition, the fact that the declaration would outline the adverse implications of the war in terms of the food, fuel and fertiliser crises in more detail than before appealed to countries which have suffered the consequences of turbulence in Europe. All these three capitals have ties with Moscow and Beijing and appear to have sent out their own messages about the importance of a declaration.

After the pieces fell in place, it was clear that Beijing had a choice. It could either decide to derail the summit to spite Delhi and risk getting isolated, not just from the western bloc with which it shares an uneasy and adversarial relationship in any case, but also from other countries not wedded to the western bloc, with which Beijing is keen to cultivate ties. Or China could join the party and show that it remained a responsible international stakeholder. To be fair, Beijing had supported other elements in the ministerial outcome statements. Traditionally reluctant to be seen as a spoiler, it came on board.

From Washington to Moscow, from Beijing to Johannesburg, from Jakarta — where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal interventions during a quick visit just a day before the G20 summit played an “influential, almost determining role”, in the words of external affairs minister S Jaishankar — to New Delhi, informal internal, bilateral and trilateral conversations intensified. And over the past few days, as sherpas and ministers and then leaders congregated in the Indian capital, what was at stake and what paths who wanted to choose and the benefits and risks associated with it was becoming clear.

The deal wasn’t done till it was done, but by Saturday morning, the mood of pessimism had turned into cautious optimism. At Bharat Mandapam, even before the opening session, Indian negotiators were walking around confidently, ribbing sceptics and asking them to have patience, even as others sought to lower expectations. It was clear something clearly had shifted.

And that shift is what broke the impasse over the 255 words that had, over the past 10 months, led every G20 ministerial to settle for a chair’s summary or outcome statement rather than a joint communique.

Personal relationships between Modi and world leaders, his top officials and their counterparts, helped. Recognising what was the raw interest, and the particular vulnerability, of the top players, and how to press the right buttons right around it, helped. Knowing who to call to talk to whom to influence the outcome helped. The private incentives on offer, and the outlining the public costs of failure, helped. But eventually, the Delhi declaration was a testament to how states in the international system can be made to exercise rational choices based on a close reading of their power structures and international positioning. And as soon as the moment was ripe and an agreement was on the table, on Day 1 of the summit itself, India announced it had a declaration, before any player could develop what can be termed “buyer’s remorse” and change their mind.

For two consecutive years — two since Delhi’s role in enabling the Bali declaration was more central than many know — India’s leadership has shown that it has the ability to carve a consensus, based on a unique set of relationships it has with key actors, its astute understanding of what motivates them, and its ability to add value to any conversation by speaking the language of interest in private and common good in public. The size of the country’s population and economy, and its soft power, too helped.

The Delhi Declaration is the result of combining high ideals with realpolitik, leadership with shoe-leather diplomacy, and morality with pragmatism. And it is, at the end of the day, a victory, not just for India, but the world.

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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