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Sep 7 – Large signs and billboards promoting India’s leadership of the Group of 20 nations’ meeting this week line major roadways in New Delhi. And one leader’s image stands out from the rest, smiling benignly from every traffic circle: Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi’s picture is also on the top pages of major newspapers, and Indian television channels are showing it with the Hindi word “Vishwaguru” — a world leader. His ministers promote him as a steward of a thriving India in public addresses.
It is an unapologetic ode to the populist prime minister and strong Hindu nationalist, whom his followers and party hail as someone who is guiding a developing nation of more than 1.4 billion people to a bright new future.
However, this advertising push reveals Modi’s personal ambitions, as he has previously leveraged the optics of New Delhi’s expanding geopolitical weight and foreign policy achievements to consolidate power. Experts believe that while India’s presidency of the summit is a source of pride for the country, Modi’s administration has also used it to promote the leader’s image and boost his party’s prospects ahead of a national election next year.
“Modi is positioning himself as a global statesman, a global thought leader … and the voice of a rising India. And all of this, I believe, is designed to feed into the Modi personality cult, which is a very expertly created, very well marketed cult, designed to appeal to a demographic which will be very swayed by these promises of rising India,” said Sagarika Ghose, a political analyst.
The September 9-10 summit of the world’s 19 wealthiest countries plus the European Union is critical for Modi ahead of the 2024 election, and a strong performance will help his ruling Hindu nationalist party to project dominance domestically.
Ahead of the summit, historical buildings, airports, and important landmarks are projecting the G20 emblem for this year – a depiction of a globe inside a lotus in the colours of the Indian flag. The opposition claims it is no accident since the lotus is also Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party’s election symbol.
Indian officials have also conducted events showcasing India’s contributions to the world, including yoga and a highly successful government-run digital transactions system. Schools have been told to hold quiz competitions regarding the G20. And Modi himself, during his periodic radio talk show called “Maan Ki Baat,” or “Straight from the Heart,” said “the month of September is going to witness the potential of India.”
Meanwhile, his cabinet has stated unequivocally that the prime minister is to be credited for the conference.
“If G20 has come to the country during his (Modi’s) time and it is completed with success, then he must get the credit,” his powerful home minister, Amit Shah, told a wire service in February.
The G20’s rotating presidency is primarily symbolic, and the summit’s success is frequently dependent on a final communiqué. This time, however, none of the multiple sessions conducted in India have yielded a result, with impasse lingering over wording on Russia’s conflict in Ukraine.
Nonetheless, the Modi government has accelerated its promotion of India as a bridge to the developing world, arguing that it is well-positioned to address concerns such as climate change, terrorism, and the debt crisis. His administration is also emphasising India’s status as a rising power sought after by major Western countries, particularly following US Vice President Joe Biden’s official visit in June.
Along the way, Modi’s government has portrayed him as the man responsible for India’s economic successes, such as advances in solar power and digital payments technology, as well as the recent feat of making a successful uncrewed landing near the moon’s south polar region, which Indians regard as a major foreign policy triumph.
Under Modi, India’s foreign policy has made major achievements, but he remains a contentious figure at home, with detractors accusing him of enabling attacks on India’s democratic and religious freedoms, as well as its independent institutions. Even while his government has managed to strike a delicate balance on Russia’s war in Ukraine, the resurgent opposition claims it has done nothing to challenge a belligerent China after fatal clashes between the two Asian powers in 2020.
Nonetheless, Modi is hugely popular among his fans, who see him as a leader who will take India to the global arena.
“This is the first time the world has come to know that India can take a stand for herself. India will do what is in the interest of India,” said Ajay Sahai Jasra, a media professional who is a Modi voter.
According to Milan Vaishnav, head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia Programme, “the transition that Modi is attempting to effect is to turn India into a big and important country,” indicating a “important shift… in the nature of domestic politics in India.”
“I do think there is a general sense among the populace that India is reclaiming an important leading role on the global stage,” Vaishnav said.
Globally, though, this sentiment is still in its infancy.
A recent Pew Research Centre study of over 30,000 people in 24 nations, conducted between February and May, found that 40% lacked confidence in Modi to do the right thing in international affairs, while 37% were confident.
According to Ghose, the political analyst, the G20 attention is also masking far deeper problems that India is facing under Modi, such as “backsliding of democracy, restrictions on human rights activists, jailing of dissenting voices, and media muzzling.”
Nonetheless, she believes the meeting will be helpful to Modi.
“He will be rubbing shoulders with President Joe Biden. He will be in the company of other global leaders. I think it will help him going forward into the elections of 2024,” Ghose said.
This article was contributed to by Associated Press reporter Krutika Pathi and video journalist Rishi Lekhi.