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As G-20 ministers gather in Delhi, Ukraine may dominate — despite India's own agenda

A man walks past a wall mural of Humayun's Tomb under the logo of the Group of 20 summit, in New Delhi on Jan. 4.
Sajjad Hussain
AFP via Getty Images
A man walks past a wall mural of Humayun's Tomb under the logo of the Group of 20 summit, in New Delhi on Jan. 4.

India is basking in its role as host of this week's G-20 foreign ministers' summit, but hoping its agenda doesn't get dominated by the Ukraine war.

As president of the Group of 20 (G-20) major economies, India wants to steer the agenda for Wednesday's summit start toward priorities for the Global South: climate change, food security, inflation and debt relief.

Three of India's neighbors — Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh — are seeking urgent loans from the International Monetary Fund, as developing countries in particular struggle with rising global fuel and food prices.

But those prices have been exacerbated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and tensions over the war threaten to overshadow everything else.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and their Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang, are all expected to attend the two-day meeting in New Delhi.

Last July, Lavrov walked out of a previous G-20 foreign ministers' meeting in Indonesia, after Western delegates denounced the Ukraine war. Last April, at another G-20 meeting, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and representatives from other Western nations walked out when Russia spoke.

India's G-20 presidency comes when it feels ascendant

Last year, India's economy became the fifth-largest in the world, surpassing that of its former colonial occupier, Britain. Any day now, India is expected to surpass China as the world's most populous country. (Some say it's happened already.) Its growth this year is expected to be the strongestamong the world's big economies.

The G-20 presidency is a rotating role: Indonesia had it last year, and Brazil hosts next. But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has sought to bill it — at least to a domestic audience — as a personal achievement by the prime minister, as he runs for reelection next year.

Billboards with Modi's face and India's G-20 logo — which is very similar to Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party's own logo — have gone up across India. In recent weeks, highway flyovers in Mumbai and New Delhi have been festooned with flower boxes. Lampposts got a fresh coat of paint.

And slum-dwellers have been evicted from informal settlements along roads in the capital where dignitaries' motorcades are traveling this week.

Besides its focus on economic issues most relevant to developing countries, another reason India wants to steer the agenda away from Ukraine is that it has maintained ties with Russia despite the war. Modi has called for a cease-fire but has so far refused to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion. And India continues to buy oil and weapons from Moscow.

But at a similar G-20 finance ministers' meeting last week, Yellen accused Russian officials in attendance of being "complicit" in atrocities in Ukraine and in the resulting damage to the global economy.

That meeting, held Feb. 22-25 near the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, ended without a final joint communique being issued. And analysts have cast doubt on whether this week's foreign ministers' meeting might end any differently.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.