India's upcoming G20 presidency

The G20 is by consensus the premier multilateral forum for global economic cooperation. The 17th G20 Summit will be held in India in 2022, easily the most high-powered summit ever hosted here. Leaders of all systemically important countries — including the full complement of G7 and BRICS — are expected to be present. It would be the Indian prime minister’s place in the sun, chairing a meet flanked, inter alia, by the US President, the British Prime Minister, the German Chancellor, the President of the European Union, the Chinese President, the Japanese Prime Minister, the President of Russia, with the chiefs of major multilateral bodies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and the UN in attendance. The leaders are expected to sign up to a document likely to go down in history as the New Delhi Declaration, including a “New Delhi Action Plan”. 

What does hosting a G20 Summit successfully entail? There is first the logistical and security nightmare of hosting all influential global leaders in one location at the same time. It is understood that the summit would be held in a new convention centre under construction in Delhi. It is, however, not essential that the summit be held in Delhi. After the first few summits, these have been mostly held in convenient resorts, such as Cannes (France), Los Cabos (Mexico), and the last in Osaka. Apart from an appropriate convention complex, security, air and road traffic control, you need adequate numbers of five-star rooms to accommodate so many high-powered delegations. 

The G20 took a conscious decision not to set up its own secretariat, for fear of the institution becoming captive to an international bureaucracy, such as in the IMF and World Bank. It wanted leaders to retain control of the summit process. The annually rotating Chair is expected to inject fresh energy and pilot the summit. Institutional continuity is provided through the troika comprising the current, previous and upcoming Chairs.  India will be in the troika between 2021 and 2023.

Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
It is the Chair’s prerogative to choose two to three special invitees to the summit.  Although not a part of the G20 by convention, Spain has attended all G20 Summits. There is also a special invitee from Africa. That still leaves India the discretion of inviting a SAARC country of its choice as part of its outreach.  

The G20 was set up in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1999 at the level of Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors (FMCBG). This was overlaid with a ‘Sherpa’ channel when it was elevated to Summit level in 2008. The Sherpa is the Leader’s point person responsible for agreement on the summit declaration. 

The first three summits — at Washington DC, London and Pittsburgh — were all about firefighting the rampant global financial crisis. After declaring victory in Pittsburgh — “It worked”— the G20 turned its attention to structural, non-crisis related issues, such as reform of financial regulation, global imbalances, and growth. India co-chairs, along with Canada, the G20’s flagship working group, the Framework for Strong, Sustainable, Balanced and Equitable Growth, since its inception at the Pittsburg Summit.  Several ministerials were also added, such as those of development ministers, environment ministers, trade ministers, agriculture ministers etc. All these work streams feed into the G20 Summit Declaration. There are also a growing number of non-governmental processes, such as the T (Think Tank) 20, W (Women) 20, Y (Youth) 20, and so on. 

The Chair is expected to pilot the multiple work streams that currently drive the G20 through its own secretariat. This includes, inter alia, drawing up the annual work programme and hosting the meetings, culminating with the summit. A summit where all the major world leaders sign up to a consensus document has a long lead time, normally more than a year. Saudi Arabia, the summit host in 2020, set up a secretariat way back in 2018. With a new government now in place, it is time India initiated this process.

It is customary for the Chair to set three or four priorities for the year and inject new work streams to leave its own imprint on the G20 process. India would need to ponder what priorities it needs to set, and what ministerials it wishes to host, under its watch.  While these should reflect India’s own domestic interests, a successful summit also needs buy-in from at least the biggest players, namely the US, Germany (on behalf of the European Union) and China. 

The Indian Sherpa shepherding this process needs the stature that commands respect of the global peer group, apart from the confidence of, and easy access to, the Prime Minister. For such a high-profile summit, the Sherpa should ideally be part of the Prime Minister’s Office but could also be in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). A serving or retired bureaucrat with the necessary experience is desirable but not essential. Be that as it may, strong dedicated teams are required in the MEA (Sherpa process) and Department of Economic Affairs (FMCBG process). The MEA would need to liaison effectively with the embassies of G20 countries for better communication, and especially for selecting participants for NGO processes. 

The danger is that if there is no strong buy-in from major G20 players, extraneous extant exigencies not on the official agenda could hijack a G20 Summit, especially when hosted by a non-G7 country.  The crisis in Syria effectively hijacked the St Petersburg Summit. Brexit, the Khashoggi affair, and bilateral trade issues overshadowed the Buenos Aires Summit. The prospects of a Trump-Xi trade deal dominated the recently concluded Osaka Summit. 

With the world’s top leaders aggregated in one place, bilaterals and ‘pull-ins’ have always been a feature of G20 Summits. But the world’s premier multilateral economic forum never faced the existential threat from bilateralism as it does today. The litmus test of India’s G20 Summit might well be whether it is remembered for the New Delhi Declaration/Action Plan, or for some high-profile bilateral deal/pull-in between superpowers.  

The writer is retired IAS officer and currently RBI Chair, ICRIER.  He anchored India’s G 20 delegations during the first seven G20 Summits.