Modi’s pitching a new path for Global South leadership. Biden is listening.

Biden’s first visit to India as president last Friday will possibly go down in history as one of the most consequential meetings that shaped the world order.  

A few observers have compared New Delhi’s G20 preparations to an Indian wedding — full of colors, a banquet displaying the culture and a multi-day event with a stadium full of guests. At an Indian wedding, it is about showcasing the grandeur that the bride’s father can offer. In this case, the Indian prime minister has taken it upon himself to showcase his nation not just as a host for the G20 but as a responsible leader on the world stage that can deliver for humanity on global issues such as climate change and world peace.   

The U.S. finds synergies in these goals and complimentary benefits in India’s aspirations to lead the Global South. A large part of the catalyst for this growing bonhomie is the rising threat of a belligerent China. Xi Jinping has courted the Global South with infrastructure through its Belt and Road Initiative and has presented a new vision for the world through initiatives such as the Global Civilization Initiative. Moreover, China and even Russia have begun to slowly tap into the dormant grievances of the nations of the Global South, such as decolonization and the subsequent anti-West sentiment

In the last few iterations of the BRICS meetings, signs of fomenting an alternative to the West-led world order were glaringly apparent. In the most recent leader-level meeting in Johannesburg, the grouping itself was expanded to include six new members. Interestingly, the catalyst for cooperation for these otherwise unlikely partners has been a growing concern over a lack of representation for nations of the Global South and a persisting asymmetry in the enforcement of international action.

Interestingly, while India is part of the BRICS, it is also an outlier in the grouping. Unlike Russia or China, it does not want to create an anti-West alliance but increase representation for nations of the Global South while simultaneously maintaining cordial ties with the Western world.   

Modi has consistently advocated for including the African Union in the G-20 and, by the end of the summit, was able to achieve a consensus declaration to include them. The leader of the African Union, Comoros President Azali Assoumani, bear-hugged Modi in an emotional display. He said,  “I’d like to thank [PM Modi] for accepting our membership. If the African Union becomes a full member of the G20, it would be because of India’s role. This is an honor for us”  

Furthermore, Modi has championed climate change actionsdelivered vaccines at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and advocated for peace talks between Russia and Ukraine for reasons that go beyond the two parties involved, including issues such as inflationary pressures on poorer nations. Interestingly, New Delhi managed to deliver a consensus declaration that highlights Ukraine’s plight but avoids a direct reference to Russia.   

While the U.S. or a rich Western nation can deliver substantially more public goods and be an even louder voice than India, their deficits lie in the lack of shared history and solidarity that nations of the Global South have as victims of Western imperialism and colonization. Furthermore, Western nations continue to be driven by liberal internationalism or battles over ideologies of democracies versus autocracies and not by issues affecting the bottom of the proverbial pyramid. 

Earlier in the year when the leader of Papua New Guinea, James Marape touched Modi’s feet and hailed him as the leader of the Global South whose voice they’d rally behind, it was not an isolated incident. As the old African proverb goes, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” Small and poor nations often find themselves caught in the crossfire between world powers. These nations seek third ways or nonaligned nations to represent their concerns. In this case, they turn to India, the former British colony that once led the nonaligned movement.  

Moreover, with both Xi and Vladimir Putin absent, Modi and Biden stole the spotlight to reimagine a world order that was led by these two democracies representing the Global South and North. Modi rightly capitalized on their absence by bringing the U.S. into a fold of groupings without the contentious partners Russia and China. The new group formed on the margins of the G20, with the U.S., India, South Africa and Brazil (IBSA) reaffirmed their shared commitment to economic cooperation to deliver solutions for the world.  

Besides IBSA, there were several other developments cutting across different regions of the world, though India was at the heart of these initiatives. For example, there was the launch of the India-MidEast-Europe Economic Corridor, connecting ports in India to Greece, U.S.-India defense, trade and technology trade cooperation and lastly, the Global Biofuels Alliance.  

Both Biden and Modi have a lot to gain or lose. With India and the U.S. conducting elections next year, both would like to have a foreign policy success under their belt. For Modi, it is about elevating India’s role on the world stage. And for Biden, it is securing another “America is back” moment months into the campaign trail, with new initiatives targeted at China, bromance gestures suggesting strong partnerships around the world and increased respect on the world stage contrary to the isolationism his predecessor preached and what select GOP candidates continue to advocate.    

Biden and Modi’s strong show of support for global issues will demonstrate the Global South and Global North can work together to find common ground on shared concerns impacting humanity.

Akhil Ramesh is a senior fellow with the Pacific Forum. He has worked with governments, risk consulting firms and think tanks in the United States and India. Follow him on Twitter: Akhil_oldsoul.  

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