Why India is key to 21st century multilateralism
The G20 — with its mix of developing and developed countries — offers the perfect platform for India to infuse partner nations with foundational ideas
Four watershed events since 2020 — a short period, but with apologies to Lenin, decades have happened in this time — have established India’s credentials as one of the last major bulwarks of a rules-based order, open and fair trade and economic arrangements, and the rule of law. These are critical elements if we are to build a new world order that is balanced, inclusive and fair.
The first event was the capitulation of western powers in Afghanistan. The triumph of the Taliban was not a victory by just war but the defeat of a people by deceit. Liberals around the world were kept in the dark as a Faustian bargain was struck by major powers that sought expediency over ethical diplomacy. Today, American supporters of the infamous Doha Agreement — ironically called the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan — express concern about Afghan women. Their hypocrisy is naked and jarring. The Doha deal could never have turned out any differently. India kept a principled distance from that pernicious deal. Appreciating fully the true nature of a prospective Taliban regime, it continued to seek an elected and pluralist government in Kabul. India was a lone voice. Yet it did not compromise. Today, India continues to support the people of Afghanistan without recognising the regime that tyrannises it.
The second is the war in Ukraine. The measures and countermeasures by Russia and Ukraine have resulted in bloodshed and mayhem, ultimately perpetuating the conflict. India’s position of principled independence, while advocating cessation of violence and pursuit of diplomacy, is recognised as the only meaningful way forward. The Indian stance has resonated across the G20 and beyond. The G20 Bali Leaders’ Declaration echoes Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s approach when it speaks of the “need to uphold ….. the multilateral system that safeguards peace and stability”, the importance of “peaceful resolutions of conflicts”, and the vital role of “diplomacy and dialogue”. Furthermore, India has consistently argued for respect for sovereignty and investigation of crimes against humanity, including those possibly committed by the Russian army.
Third, in the technology domain, India has long championed an open, free and fair digital order. However, with the United States (US) pressing for narrow benefits for Silicon Valley in the past decade, India was reluctant to endorse instruments that sought free data flow without sufficient accountability from actors responsible for storing and transporting such data. Much to the US’s chagrin, India appeared to restrict cross-border data flows, sought regulation of non-personal data and contested monopolies, and restricted cartelisation attempts of the US’s payments and e-commerce companies. It made no secret of its distrust. Having dispelled coercive pressure to enter into digital handshakes on unfavourable terms or sovereign commitments on a future digital services tax, India has now eased its stand on data localisation. The reason: There is no longer any pressure from the US because even domestic actors in America want greater regulation and accountability from Big Tech. India is exploring sharing data with “trusted geographies” while seeking surgical data protection for specific sectors. An inclusive, equitable internet remains a core priority.
The year 2021 signalled India’s fourth landmark moment. At the 26th round of the Conference of the Parties (COP26), India demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the planet by announcing its goal of reaching net-zero by 2070. It voluntarily imposed on itself a timeline for climate action, although its emissions per capita were well under two tonnes – about one-eighth those of the US. PM Modi’s Panchamrita road map for 2070 includes interim targets for boosting non-fossil energy capacity, using renewables, and reducing carbon emissions and the economy’s carbon intensity. PM Modi also later launched India’s LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment) Mission. He emerged as one the earliest world leaders to state candidly that climate action would require changes to individual lifestyles, taking steps to initiate those changes. By contrast, an international survey of 10 countries, including the US, the United Kingdom, France and Germany — published to coincide with COP26 — found few citizens willing to make significant lifestyle sacrifices. In fact, 46% of respondents believed there was no real need for them to do so. Take the facile but heated domestic debate around a potential ban on gas stoves in the US. Even as US diplomats have long championed “clean cookstoves” for the developing world, it appears there is little interest in following good climate practices at home.
India’s natural influence as a democracy and sincere interlocutor that can engage the political spectrum of nations gives it unique moral authority. Indeed, 21st century multilateralism needs more Indias. The G20 — with its mix of developing and developed countries — offers the perfect platform for India to infuse partner nations with foundational ideas. The world has much to learn on putting humanity first, adopting a pro-planet orientation, promoting peace, and placing equity and inclusion at the heart of internationalism. With its ethos of One Earth, One Family, One Future, India could show the way.
Samir Saran is president, Observer Research Foundation and is serving as the chair of the Think20 Secretariat during India’s G20 presidency The views expressed are personal