India’s leadership of the G20 this year is serving as a test of what kind of great power it aspires to be. Its record so far does little to inspire confidence that it can meaningfully contribute to a more peaceful and prosperous world. In fact, it gives much cause for concern.

The G20 foreign ministers’ talks in New Delhi earlier this month ended without a consensus statement on the Russia-Ukraine war. This was in contrast to the leaders’ summit in Bali, Indonesia last November, in which a joint communique recognized that “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine.”

India, a longtime ally of Russia now also courted by the West, continues to fence-sit on the question of Ukraine. Instead of leveraging its relationships for peace, it has supported Moscow’s war chest, ramping up imports of discounted Russian oil.

India has also used the moment to finger-point at Europe, rather than condemn Russian aggression. Last year, India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, said, “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems.”

Jaishankar’s critique of Eurocentrism has merit. It’s also shared by many in the Global South, who bristle as the West has committed well over $100 billion in aid to Ukraine, but falls short in addressing challenges like climate change, the debt crisis, and food insecurity that are hurting poorer countries. Many of these problems have been exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war.

India has rightly put these issues on the G20 agenda this year. But it’s actually doing little more than paying lip service to them. The G20 finance ministers’ meeting last month concluded without any tangible commitments to debt-distressed countries like Sri Lanka. 

In reality, India is using the G20 presidency and other global platforms to engage in sanctimonious posturing to gain space for the naked pursuit of its self-interest. It’s also leveraging them to project Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image as a Hindu strongman at home.

India is no ally of the West or the Global South. It is a selective partner only out for itself. It seeks a multipolar world order in which the power of the West is diminished. Paradoxically, the U.S. and its allies are aiding India in reducing their global influence.

Policy elites in Washington and other Western capitals must come to terms with this reality. Naively, they see India’s rise as a world power as an indisputable good in countering China, so much that they ask for little in return. They give India the benefit of the doubt, even when it so brazenly pursues its interest at odds with their own.

If the behavior of India isn’t telling enough, its words are loud and clear. Jaishankar — India’s chief grand strategist — writes in his 2020 book that India should focus on “advancing national interests by identifying and exploiting opportunities created by global contradictions.” A top advisor to Modi, Jaishankar promotes a commitment-free foreign policy, arguing that India should leverage “competition to extract as much gains from as many ties as possible.” In other words, India is playing all sides against one another.

To its detriment, the West gives India easy wins without asking it to make real sacrifices or protect human rights. Its indulgence of India’s grandstanding and flaccid responses to taunting by Jaishankar and others also furthers Modi’s domestic Hindu nationalist agenda.

It allows Modi to not only project India as a vishwa guru or “world teacher,” but also furthers his own image as a mighty Hindu who is humbling the West and can act with impunity. Indeed, as civic and religious freedoms erode in India, Western governments balk at condemnation let alone punitive action.

The domestic symbolism of India’s global theatrics is lost on Western leaders. This is partly because the U.S. and other Western countries have failed to develop the institutional knowledge of the Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) ideology, lexicon, and networks. By contrast, there’s tremendous work on the Chinese Communist Party.

Case in point, when Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong cited India as a “civilizational power” this month, she inadvertently endorsed the BJP’s idea of a Hindu civilization or a “Hindu Rashtra,” in which Muslims are debased and erased. 

Sadly, Western officials allow themselves to imagine a world in which the Hindutva ideology does not exist. They continue to proclaim that they are bound with India by “shared values,” as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz did last month, ignoring India’s very blatant authoritarian, majoritarian turn.

There is much to worry about when it comes to India’s future course. But the West is simply choosing to look away.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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