Author : Amrita Narlikar

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Mar 02, 2023
Ancient Wisdom for Today and Tomorrow: India’s Presidency of the G20 This article is a chapter in the journal — Raisina Files 2023.
THE ORIGINS OF THE G20 lie in financial crises. Over the years, the leaders’ level G20 has come to embrace a wider economic agenda (e.g. sustainable development, anti-corruption, agriculture) as well as other urgent problems (e.g. health and climate change). Its relatively informal nature (the group, for instance, does not have a Secretariat and operates with a rotating Presidency)<1> and the fact that it comprises a critical mass of the world’s economies have contributed to the G20’s effectiveness in addressing the 2008 financial crisis and other cognate issues. The world, however, now faces a new order of problems. And unlike the financial crises of 1998 (which prompted the creation of the G20 at the level of Finance Ministers and Central Bankers) and 2008 (which led to the formation of the G20 at the level of heads of state/government), some of the challenges of today involve ‘wickedly’ zero-sum games and are thus deeply divisive. Two sets of problems are worth highlighting as indicative of the level of difficulty involved. First, and in contrast to the previous genre of economic challenges that the G20 managed to address with varying degrees of success over the last 15 years, today’s problems derive from an entanglement of security and economics (or ‘geoeconomics’). Under current production patterns, a few states occupy key positions on network hubs, and can ‘weaponise’ the very ties of interdependence that had previously contributed to prosperity and peace.<2> Trying to keep markets open, trade flows uninterrupted, and the old model of globalisation largely unchanged—a standard G20 type of solution—will now not only not suffice, but could worsen the problem. The old model of globalisation needs to be overhauled, but there is fundamental disagreement among countries (and diverse actors within them, e.g. even between large businesses versus small and medium-sized enterprises) on if and how this should happen. Second, and again in contrast to the context in which the old G20 could enable technocratic solution-building, fundamental political differences have emerged between countries. One key fault-line is between democracies and authoritarian states.<3> And authoritarian states are rapidly advancing. This is the case not only via their tightening grip domestically, but also in their respective regions and globally. We see this in Europe via Russia’s war on Ukraine, or China’s adventurism on its borders with India (or indeed, with regard to Hong Kong and other actors in the region). This authoritarian advance takes place not only through overt military means. Surveillance technologies are an example. Usually more readily developed and accepted by authoritarian regimes, these technologies are making their invidious presence also felt in democratic states due to digital over-dependence. In the absence of clear multilateral rules on data protection and privacy, and few accessible alternatives available to users, core liberal values—and democratic ways of life—are coming under threat. Old mantras of multilateralism, such as “global problems need global solutions”, will not be able to rid the world of these problems, even as the planet burns and biodiversity declines. Global order—as all countries (ranging from Russia and China to the US and EU) agree—is under threat, but a gamut of competing views exists on what shape a new global order should take. A fresh approach is needed. India, with an increasingly confident assertiveness of its long-standing traditions, may be well-placed to develop such an approach. Its Presidency of the G20 in 2022-23 provides it with a timely opportunity to do so—for itself, and for the world at large. This essay draws on key tenets of India’s ancient wisdom,<4> and highlights five arenas where India’s G20 Presidency could make an important and unique contribution on the global stage.

1. A Distinctive Leadership for the G20 from India

First and foremost, we can safely assume that India will show its own leadership—in style and in content. The verse below is an example of the strong roots that enable it to exercise such leadership:
निन्दन्तु नीतिनिपुणा यदि वा स्तुवन्तु । लक्ष्मी: समाविशतु गच्छतु वा यथेष्टम् ।। अधैव वा मरणमस्तु युगान्तरे वा । न्याय्यात्पथ: प्रविचलन्ति पदं न धीरा: ।। Irrespective of whether the great and the good of this world showers them Whether wealth accrues to them or leaves them of its own accord Whether they have to meet death today or centuries later Wise people do not let their feet stray from the path of truth and righteousness. Bhartrihari, Nitishatakam, 84.<5>
We have seen India standing up for its beliefs with a consistency that dates back to the time that it secured its independence, and persists firmly today.<6> It has done so amidst changes in the global balance of power, and in spite of external pressures. This was evident in the face of the opprobrium that India encountered over its nuclear tests in 1998; it has persisted in the World Trade Organization over decades on several issues; and we saw it come to the fore again over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We can be certain that India will not shy away from leaving its mark on the G20 with its unique style of global leadership. It will engage with partners, it will respond to feedback (internal and external), it will adapt its strategy accordingly—but it will always be true to itself. This involves standing true to both its values and its interests.

2. Values and Interests

India’s tendency in recent years has been to speak the language of pragmatism. In an agenda-setting speech in 2019, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar speaks of “multi-alignment”, “India First”, and “hedging” as part of a “strong and pragmatic policy outlook”.<7> But it would be a mistake to read this pragmatism as a willingness on India’s part to surrender its values at the altar of interests. The Mahabharat—India’s famous epic that is first and foremost about the brutal business of politics—shows how values and interests go hand-in-hand:
धर्म एव हतो हन्ति धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः। When Dharm (duty/ values) is destroyed, it also destroys; Dharm protects those who guard it. Mahabharat, III.313.128
The above quote comes from the famous Yaksh Prashn episode of the Mahabharat, and suggests that by protecting values, one can also safeguard and promote one’s interests. This nuanced conceptualisation of values and interests as being reflexive and mutually-constitutive stands in contrast to the dichotomy (of interests versus values) that is sometimes assumed in public and academic debates. In practice, the fact that India is seen to be a tough negotiator derives not from a shallow understanding of values; rather, its strong positions come from a deep understanding of interests that are firmly rooted in values (and evolve accordingly). What does this mean in terms of India’s G20 Presidency? Despite now being in the club of major powers (e.g. courted by the US and Russia, a member of the Quad, and predicted to be the world’s fastest growing economy), expect India to still adhere to its commitment for a more inclusive and participatory global order. We are already seeing this in action in the Think-20 (T20) processes that India is hosting. For instance, participants in the T20 task forces have been chosen from a global pool and work together at an eye-to-eye level as co-chairs; a wide range of topics is covered by the seven task forces; a diversity of views is represented; attention is being paid to the obvious interests of not only G20 members but the many marginalised voices of the Global South. In the same vein, we can expect to see a further push for reforming multilateral governance under the Indian Presidency, including the membership of the UN Security Council.

3. Global Justice and Sustainable Development

India, when it was not a major economy, understandably advanced the cause of development and distributive justice: it was in its interest to do so. But linked to the previous point and also taking into account its (still) low per-capita income, India’s attachment to these issues has not declined even as its power has risen. Such position aligns well with its ancient wisdom:
दरिद्रान्भर कौन्तेय मा प्रयच्छेश्वरे धनम्। व्याधितस्यौषधं पथ्यं नीरुजस्तु किमौषधैः॥ Share your wealth with the poor, O Son of Kunti, do not give riches to the already rich! Medicine is useful to the sick, what use does a healthy person have for medicine? Hitopdesh, The Story of the Tiger and the Traveller.
We can be certain that under India’s Presidency, the G20 will prioritise the cause of global justice across issue-areas—climate, economy, health, and more. Expect reinforced demands for green financing, driven by public-private partnerships, and firm reminders on the low per-capita energy and CO2 consumption in the Global South that serve as warnings against inequitable burden-sharing of mitigation and adaptation. We might also see demands for the reform of trade multilateralism but with clear carve-outs for Special and Differential Treatment. Within the framework of the WTO, India will likely be joined by several other G20 members and guests from the Global South to demand vaccine equity to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as access to other medical supplies, equipment and treatments. All these will provide useful business opportunities, and are likely to resonate across a range of the G20 outreach processes that have been set up.

4. Food Security and Globalisation

Even while the Modi government has increased India’s business-friendliness, there are some vital continuities in India’s foreign economic policy that include some scepticism towards trade liberalisation. The notion of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India)’ is an example of this. Delve into India’s ancient philosophy, and we see that strains of this thinking are not new. When asked the question, “Who is truly happy?”, Yudhishthir—a hero of the Mahabharat—responds with the following:
पञ्चमेऽहनि षष्ठे वा शाकं पचति स्वे गृहे। अनृणी चाप्रवासी च स वारिचर मोदते ॥ He who has the reliability of even scant food to cook at home, and is not in debt, he is happy. Mahabharat, III.313.115
Throughout the (now failed) negotiations over the Doha Development Agenda in the WTO, India had held a firm line on food security concerns, and attracted considerable criticism as a result. Today amidst conditions of weaponised interdependence, its concerns about over-dependence on trade flows in key areas—including food—appear to be well-justified. Medical supplies were held hostage in the early stages of the pandemic; export bans on rare-earth minerals in the past have shown the vulnerability of global supply chains; the sanctions against and counter-responses from Russia have resulted in increased food and energy prices that are having an adverse impact on some of the poorest countries, as well as the poor in rich countries. India would be well-served to highlight issues of food security—and indeed of other strategic supplies—to push for an alternative model of globalisation in the G20 setting. Rather than accept trade as an end goal in its own right, or limit the discussion to standard-setting, India could be at the forefront of advancing a rebooted globalisation that recognises the trade-offs between market opening and national security. In doing so, it would find willing partners in the United States, parts of the European Union, and elsewhere—not only to support this agenda per se but potentially also for closer and deeper trade links (‘friendshoring’, if you will) among like-minded allies.

5. Animal Rights and Environmentalism

Much is made of family and society-oriented ‘Asian values’ as being different from individual-oriented ‘universal’ values. Traditional India, however, offers quite a different, indeed more ‘liberal’ perspective on this issue than even Western variants by according individual personality and rights to all creatures:<8> अयं निजः परो वेति गणना लघु चेतसाम् । उदारचरितानां तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् ॥ This is mine, this is yours – only mean-minded people indulge in such bean-counting, For the generous-minded, the entire earth is one family. Mahopnishad, 6.71<9> The second line of the verse quoted above—which many translate roughly as “the world is one family”—has found international take-up, with global leaders such as Obama also embracing it. At first glance, this inclusive approach seems to bring together all peoples of the planet. In fact, however, India’s approach is even more inclusive: note that the actual translation of ‘vasudha’ is not ‘world’ but ‘earth’ and extends to not only humans, but all the non-human beings with which we share this planet. India’s motto for G20 seems to recognise this subtle but crucially important difference, and thus works with the wording of “One earth, one family, one future”. A non-anthropocentric appreciation of family, welfare, justice, and rights is deeply enshrined in ancient Indian texts. It flourishes to this day in the verses we are taught (e.g. as part of learning at home but also in formal Sanskrit classes in a convent school in Delhi, this author imbibed the idea of आत्मवत् सर्वभूतेषु यः पश्यति सः पण्डितः – he who looks upon all beings as he looks upon himself, he is the truly wise one). The Bhagavad Gita similarly states:
समं सर्वेषु भूतेषु तिष्ठन्तं परमेश्वरम्। विनश्यत्स्वविनश्यन्तं यः पश्यति स पश्यति।। He who sees the divine in all creatures, And in all mortal bodies sees the immortal soul, he is the one who truly understands. Bhagavad Gita, 13.28
This non-anthropocentric perspective is very different from Fridays for Future demonstrations prompted by Greta Thunberg’s climate activism. In contrast to children in the West demanding that the planet be saved for their future, or adults appealing to inter-generational justice on behalf of their children and their children’s children, the Indian approach highlighted here seeks trans-species justice. It applies to the cause of biodiversity, and not only for the sake of the preservation of particular species but to save the lives of individual animals within species. It has relevance for a variety of concerns involving animal welfare and rights—such as multilateral bans on trophy-hunting, and tough regulations on live animal markets and imports. It remains to be seen whether India will seize this opportunity provided by the G20 to advance a non-anthropocentric agenda. This will not be an easy task, given the tough political economy of entrenched economic interests in the above areas. It is to the credit of PM Modi that of India’s Think-20 task forces, Task Force 3 is uniquely focused on “LiFE: Lifestyle for the Environment, Resilience, and Values for Well-Being” where there may be an opportunity to develop these ideas further.<10> Introducing a less anthropocentric perspective into the G20 would not only help alleviate the suffering of our animal friends and kin globally; it would also have a positive impact on multiple, cognate human concerns including public health and sustainable development. Additionally, it could also serve India’s own interests. For instance, in their negotiations over the EU-India Free Trade Agreement, labour and environmental standards have proven to be a long-standing stumbling block. India’s more holistic, less anthropocentric perspective could help re-shape the debate and find a way out of this deadlock.


In each of the above areas, India may be able to leave its unique and constructive imprint on the G20. It will be able to do this via the formal meetings, as well as agenda-setting bilateral and minilateral exchanges throughout the G20 process and around the summit.  But it is important to not overestimate the capacity of the G20 as a grouping, and also to recognise the limits on the powers of the Presidency. The G20 brings together a motley crowd of countries, some in direct or indirect conflict with each other. Consensus documents mean that global summitry can tend towards “cheap talk” and lowest common denominator solutions. The G20’s mandate does not cover security issues; attempts to curtail the abuses of weaponised interdependence and build a new model of globalisation will likely meet resistance on the part of China as well as some other actors. There is a further risk: if the West does not respond to some of the opportunities that India tries to create, others will step in. China is an example of this, with its offers of not only cheap infrastructure that large parts of the Global South—and indeed the Global North—desperately need, but also an alternative development model that is at loggerheads with liberal values and poses further security threats. Will the world look dramatically different after India completes its Presidency of the G20? Probably not. But if India successfully manages to plant the seeds of some of the ideas outlined in this essay, and embed them in the narratives of global governance, multilateralism, and globalisation, we could be on the way to building a more sustainable, equitable, and secure world.


<1> Amrita Narlikar, ‘Can the G20 save Globalisation?GIGA Focus Global, 1: 2017. On a broader discussion on informal institutions in global governance, see Charles B. Roger, The Origins of Informality: Why the Legal Foundations of Global Governance are Shifting and Why it Matters, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. <2> Daniel Drezner, Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman, The Uses and Abuses of Weaponised Interdependence, Washington DC: Brookings, 2021. <3> Amrita Narlikar, “Three External Risks to Democracy and How to Address Them,World Economic Forum, October 20, 2021. <4> Note that the verses that this essay cites constitute India’s living tradition. Several of them derive from India’s epic, the Mahabharat, while a couple of others form a part of the Subhashitani (helpful quotations/ teachings) that form a part of textbooks that schoolchildren grow up with. All translations in this essay are by the author herself. On the value of these texts for understanding India’s modern-day foreign policy and negotiation behaviour, see Amrita Narlikar and Aruna Narlikar, Bargaining with a Rising India: Lessons from the Mahabharata, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014; S. Jaishankar, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2020. Also on this, Aruna Narlikar, Amitabh Mattoo, and Amrita Narlikar, Modern Problems, Ancient Solutions, forthcoming 2023. <5> Open access at ; for a recitation of this verse and its interpretation, see. <6> For example, on the proactive role that Indian representatives played in the negotiations over the multilateral trade regime, see Amrita Narlikar, Poverty Narratives and Power Paradoxes in International Trade Negotiations and Beyond, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. <7> S. Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister’s Speech at the 4th Ramnath Goenka Lecture, November 14, 2019. <8> Raimundo Panikkar, ‘Is the Notion of Human Rights a western concept?’ Diogenes, (30) 120, 1982, pp. 75- 102 . <9> For a recitation of this verse and its application to the present day, see. <10> The author serves on TF3 as a co-chair.
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Amrita Narlikar

Amrita Narlikar

Professor Amrita Narlikar is the President of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA), Honorary Fellow of Darwin College (University of Cambridge), Non-Resident ...

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