Opinion: African Union In G20 - Seismic Change Under Modi's Leadership

When Narendra Modi stood at Delhi's Rajghat on a rain-soaked Sunday morning to receive G20 dignitaries who paid tribute to the Father of the Nation, a visual of Wardha Sevagram's 'Bapu Kuti' (which was Mahatma Gandhi's abode 1936 onwards) formed the backdrop. It was not mere symbolism. As G20 president, PM Modi carried Mahatma Gandhi's talisman of people-centric development and ensured that the continent of Africa, which was Bapu's initial karmabhoomi, was bestowed its rightful place with the induction of the 55-nation African Union (AU) as a permanent member of G20 alongside the European Union(EU).

The G20 Leaders' Declaration, which will be henceforth referred to as the 'Delhi Declaration', recorded this seismic change with the nomenclature - "Creating a More Inclusive World".

The induction of AU took place during Modi's opening presidential comment. The current President of AU, Azali Assoumani of Comoros, warmly embraced Modi before occupying his seat. Assoumani described the moment thus in a chat with media later: "I was about to cry. It was a great emotion for me. Because actually, we thought that there was going to be a debate and then a decision would be taken."

"There is enough room for India in Africa," Assoumani declared and called India "the 5th superpower in terms of inhabitancy, ahead of China".

AU's inclusion was the culmination of an effort initiated by Modi in June. India's diplomacy had attained a consensus on this in the run-up to the summit. So, on September 9, the induction happened sans debate. Modi, as the leader of 1.4 billion Indians, welcomed to the world's High Table 1.34 billion Africans.

AU's induction gives more financial heft to that continent, until now represented in G20 only by Republic of South Africa. It gave legitimacy to G20 as an inclusive forum. G20 emerged from New Delhi as G21, or perhaps as G20+. In the years to come, beginning with Nigeria and Egypt, more African nations may aspire to join the forum.

AU's Agenda 2030 and Agenda 2063 - Africa's development blueprint to achieve inclusive and sustainable socio-economic development over a 50-year period, will now be part of the G20 discourse. It will open up opportunities for India and others to access the tariff and intellectual property rights regimen of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA). Effectively stymieing the attempt by China to treat that continent as its 'area of influence', exploiting its financial incursions in the form of loans.

The fact that India intended to be the voice of the Global South was evident since January when it hosted a virtual conclave, Voice of the Global South. External Affairs Minister S.Jaishankar said at NDTV's "Decoding G20" event in end-August that India will cannonade the opinions culled from this South meet's 120 participating nations at G20. So, it did. World issues were addressed from a Global South perspective. Concerns on Food, Fuel and Fertilisers were anchored in the G20 declaration.

In February, addressing a world business summit hosted by a financial daily, referring to the post-Covid phase, Modi said, "India has shown the world how to convert an adversity into an opportunity." It has shown the real meaning of 'anti-fragile', he added. This positivity was reflected at every step of India's G20 presidency.

The New Delhi meet catalysed the initiation of a new world order. What the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) had unsuccessfully strived for in New York over the past year was achieved in two days by G20 - a unanimous declaration on the war in Ukraine, which addressed the angst of the West while not treading on the sensibilities of Russia. Respect for Territorial Integrity of Nations and respect for political sovereignty was underscored in the Leaders' Declaration, which was adopted unanimously.

Effective negotiations shepherded by India's Sherpa, Amitabh Kant, produced a document that had no split paragraphs or footnote. After arduous work, a few red lines of the West, China's multiple objections and Russia's reservations, were papered over. On the eve of the Summit Amitabh Kant produced a consensus draft and said that it was the final document. He told fellow Sherpas (most of them National Security Advisors or foreign ministers of their respective nations) that if they had any reservations then they may like to request the leader of their delegation to address them to Modi. None did.

During a Civil Services Day function in Vigyan Bhavan some years ago, televised live, Modi had remarked that Amitabh Kant's name should be changed to 'Amitabh Can'. The deft drafting of the G20 Leaders' Declaration perhaps ratified that observation. In his effort Kant was aided by two diplomats, Nagraj Naidu Kakanur and Eenam Gambhir.

G20's Indian diplomacy was spearheaded by External Affairs Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who, like the Soviet era Foreign Minister of Moscow, Andrei Gromyko, has been part of diplomacy for over four decades. Gromyko had risen to be foreign minister of the erstwhile USSR from diplomatic ranks. His experience, spanning 1939 to 1988, saw him serve as Ambassador in several capitals. Likewise, Jaishankar served as diplomat in key countries and headed the Foreign Office, in his carrier spanning 1977-2018 before becoming a minister in 2019.

The maturity of India's diplomacy and Sherpa team was reflected in the Leaders' Declaration draft. Its unanimous adoption underscored India's acceptability in the comity of nations.

The section on Ukraine was titled, "For the Planet, People, Peace and Prosperity." It said, "In line with the UN Charter, all states must refrain from the threat or use of force to seek territorial acquisition against the territorial integrity and sovereignty or political independence of any state. The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible." It was an unambiguous diktat for world peace, parcelled in ambiguity.

The emergence of the Global Biofuel Alliance, a subject in which Brazil, the next G20 President, has domain expertise, will enable a transition green fuel till Green Hydrogen is optimally harnessed. It will give fillip to Climate Change effort.

Another key take away of New Delhi declaration is the pact on the setting up of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, which will open the door to India's connectivity with Eurasia, which had been shut since the Partition in 1947 and the consequent denial by Pakistan of overland transit facilities. This sea-rail connectivity will extend beyond Europe, to the USA. It will be a game changer in trade and connectivity. The initiative effectively counters China's Belt and Road narrative.

India can look back with pride on its G20 Presidency. For the first time meetings were not limited to the national capital - 200 meetings of G20 delegates were spread over 56 locations all over India. Modi has described this G20 as a "People's Summit" in his closing remarks. It indeed has been a national carnival. The Non Aligned Meeting (NAM) and Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) both held in 1983, five decades ago, did not generate the vibrancy that was witnessed during India's presidency of G20 this year.

(Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a retired Editor and a public affairs commentator)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.