From December 2022 to November 2023, India holds the presidency of the G-20, an intergovernmental forum comprising the world’s 20 largest economies — 19 countries and the European Union. Domestically, the G-20 is presented as an opportunity for India to set the agenda and promote itself on the global stage.
However, amid the great marketing opportunity that the G-20 appears to constitute for India, there is a real concern that India will market a version of itself that is exclusionary, by cautiously erasing parts of its society that do not align with the current Indian government’s vision of India. This is already visible in the choice of emblems and venues that will be spotlighted throughout G-20 meetings, which selectively display a singular religious identity despite India’s religious and identity pluralism.
The current Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been characterized as Hindu nationalist, and it is no surprise that this ideology shines through in several places in regard to the G-20.
Take, for instance, the choice of outing during an early diplomatic briefing, when India invited diplomats to visit the prison cell of Savarkar, a Hindu nationalist leader imprisoned during the British colonial era. Savarkar was a leading advocate for exclusionary Hindu nationalism and remains an icon for the ideology to date.
Consider also India’s discourse on its “culture” work group. India writes that this component involves “conserving India’s cultural heritage” and showcasing “unity in diversity.” Yet, reference to cultural heritage from Sunni Islam — India’s second largest religion — does not exist on the website. While monuments such as the Qutb Minar in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and have typically featured in India’s “Incredible India” tourism branding, here they are simply absent. Similarly, the website touts Modi’s outreach to the Jain, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, and Tribal communities in India, but India’s Sunni Muslims are not mentioned.
This is a warning sign: As part of its Hindu nationalist project, the government arguably constructs Muslims as permanent outsiders. While the culture work stream of G-20 claims to want to support diversity, cultural industries that do not subscribe to Hindu nationalism’s worldview are simply erased.
This erasure is dangerously reminiscent of past instances of violence, such as the demolition of a the 16th century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, and recent threats to destroy the Gyanvapi Mosque in nearby Varanasi, which Hindu nationalist factions claim to be standing on the ruins of a Hindu temple demolished by Muslim invaders. A petition in the Supreme Court seeking to prohibit Muslims from entering the Gyanvapi Mosque is ongoing.
The desire to erase the presence of Islam even resulted in removal of a bus stand in November 2022, as a BJP politician alleged that domes on its top resembled a mosque. More recently, in January 2023, authorities in the state of Uttar Pradesh demolished yet another mosque, reportedly as part of a road-widening project.
As Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay writes, the meetings India has organized since the start of its presidency may have already helped India secure international legitimacy and widespread recognition for Hindu nationalism. This is because India is deliberately wielding its G-20 presidency as a form of soft power, through strategic communication to shape discourse about India. India’s cultural diplomacy, which has for a long-time focused on its capacity to absorb peoples and their cultures into a land of possibilities, is now in stark contrast with Hindu nationalist cultural diplomacy.
As Ravinder Kaur argues in her book “Brand New Nation,” India is branding itself internationally to investors as an attractive investment destination for global capital, and domestically to its citizens by promising the restoration of lost ethnonational glory. There is a real worry that India’s strategic brand communication at the G-20 will only further legitimize Hindu nationalism. After all, Hindu nationalism may have been born in Indian towns, but that is not where it gained its strength. Rather, as Kaur concludes, “it was achieved in the cosmopolitan surroundings of Davos and in the posh studios of brand managers eager to ‘serve their nation.’”
India has declared the theme “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” — or “One World, One Family” — to guide its presidency. The G-20 can take this theme in two ways: They can either conceptualize the family as a homogenous entity, thereby legitimizing exclusion. Or they can recognize the inherent diversity of the world, and use the theme as a true opportunity to honor national and international diversity.
India must promote and support its diverse cultural heritage, and counter the erasing of minority culture. Others must do their part, too: G-20 states must insist that the discussions center on promoting diversity and inclusion, by encouraging interaction between communities. One thing is clear: What must be avoided with utmost care is giving legitimacy to an exclusionary nation-branding project in which minorities are banished to the sidelines.