So yet another G20 summit is upon us. One of the most memorable things that I have experienced in my long career as a journalist is that, while working for this newspaper between 2008 and 2013, I was assigned to cover four G20 summits — two in 2010 and one each in 2011 and 2012.
Manmohan Singh was the prime minister then, and following the practice started by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 when he went to the US, Singh also gave around 30-35 of us journalists a lift on his plane. All prime ministers in-between had done the same: gave a lift.
Our newspapers paid for everything else. But the food, if we wanted it free, was arranged by the Indian embassy in whichever country the summit was being held. This giving-a-lift practice came to an end when Narendra Modi became prime minister. He refused to give the journalists a lift.
It was an odd thing to do because firstly, it cost the government virtually nothing and it was good PR as the journalists were mostly from small regional newspapers. Secondly, more importantly, it gave the prime minister a chance to talk to the press on the way back on board the PM’s plane. On long flights there was no time constraint. Neither the PM nor the journalists had anything else to do. So the encounters were friendly and relaxed.
This is not the place to recount the anecdotes from those trips but as I look back, one thing is very clear: these G20 summits serve no purpose.
Ask yourself the question: Modi has been attending these summits since 2014. Can you recall anything from them?
Barring the two summits in 2009 (after the North Atlantic financial crisis of 2008) in Pittsburgh and London where the US and UK conned the other 18 countries into acquiescing to loose monetary policies, almost nothing of substance was achieved. The declarations were all mostly just nice words. As to the money for the MDGs, forget it.
The only lasting legacy has been the actions proposed against money laundering in Toronto in 2010. One should add here that the Toronto commitment to anti-money laundering probably led to the EU regulations that eventually led to Brexit. The UK controls the largest number of safe haven jurisdictions in the world. You can draw your own conclusions.
And now comes Russxit and Chinxit. This year Vladimir Putin is not coming and instead of any major concern, the only thing one hears about it is that there won’t be a seating problem!
Xi Jinping is also not coming. Heaven knows what his problem is. He has so many grievances all the time.
These abstentions tell you a lot about the future of G20. But if the G20 is a good thing, how can it be made more useful? No one knows.
All attempts to do this have failed.
The answer perhaps lies in not pretending that it has some larger objective and, instead, to use the time to have completely private meetings between the leaders without any of the razzmatazz that we are seeing.
A retreat, if you like — which is what it pretty much was for the decade before 2009. The leaders need to have their closest advisers at hand, of course, but only for comfort. It’s a terrific opportunity to do some real diplomacy that’s currently being wasted.