Narendra Modi’s leadership ambitions have been aided by an unlikely adversary

Narendra Modi’s leadership ambitions have been aided by an unlikely adversary

The G20’s rotational presidency, which means each member country hosts the event once every 20 years, could not have come at a more fortunate time for Modi who is preparing to face an election next year for a parliament in which he already controls 353 of 543 seats.

India’s choice of G20 logo, a lotus, looks eerily similar to that of Modi’s own party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. It has been plastered on water tanks, schools and tea stalls across the country, from New Delhi to where I am now, in rural Gauchar, on my way through the Himalayas to India’s border with Tibet.

Modi has made no secret of his use of the international forum to advance his nationalistic and domestic political interests. Last week he urged followers on X, formerly known as Twitter, to tweet in Sanskrit about the G20. The Indian leader wants to see the ancient language revived as part of his growing nationalist campaign. This week he went further by replacing the name India with its ancient word Bharat in dinner invitations sent to guests of the G20.

At the same time, the 72-year-old is framing himself not just as a leader of India but of the global south. He has just been aided in that goal by an unlikely adversary, China’s President Xi Jinping, who will skip this year’s summit for the first time since he came to power in 2012. There has been no official reason from Beijing for its leader’s absence, but its ongoing territorial, diplomatic and economic disputes with its largest neighbour, India, may have made Xi reluctant to bestow the pleasure of his company on a country that is becoming one of China’s greatest rivals.

Xi also has pressing issues at home. China’s economy is struggling and consumers and cadres are growing frustrated. Their ideological commitment is wavering. So on Tuesday, Cai Qi, one of his top officials, announced the next stage of the Xi Jinping Thought study campaign, “to fully implement the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics to condense the heart and soul to achieve new results”.


It’s unlikely the study sessions on international relations will include many details from the past few weeks. Apart from the G20 no show, those weeks have included the unexplained sacking of China’s foreign minister, the Dutch banning one of the world’s biggest chip suppliers, ASML, from shipping machines to China and Italy saying it will exit Xi’s signature policy, the Belt and Road Initiative. “It will not be a message against China,” said Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani. It is hard to see it being anything but.

When they walk through the arrivals hall, G20 delegates will see another sign next to Modi: “Leave no one behind,” its reads. Except Xi Jinping, a few might be tempted to say.

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