by Praful Bidwai

18 June 2007

With the G8 suffering from a serious credibility crisis, widely seen as promoting the narrow self-interest of rich countries. India, like other G5 countries (China, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico) should turn its back on this club, instead of joining its pursuit of neoliberal policies, argues Praful Bidwai.

Call it his discomfort with the “glass ceiling” the G-8 industrialised countries were apparently trying to impose upon the Outreach-5 states (China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa). Or attribute it to his feeling that they are “patronising” towards the Third World. But there’s no doubt that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has returned from Germany disappointed. He even vented his frustration at being invited to the anteroom of the Rich Man’s Club, but not let into the dining hall.

He said: “We were not active participants in the G-8 processes. In fact, the G-8 communique was issued even before our meeting… In future we should get a chance to discuss issues of our concern… so that our point of view can be reflected in the G-8’s… processes…” He was upset that the summit adopted a resolution on climate change and nuclear non-proliferation which differs from India’s stance. On non-proliferation, it asked India to “facilitate a more forthcoming approach towards nuclear cooperation… in a manner that enhances and reinforces the global non-proliferation regime.”

Eventually, Dr Singh’s message, that “we have come here not as petitioners but as partners”, fell flat on the G-8. Indian officials have since said that they’ll explore other avenues.

This reaction is markedly different from that in 2003, when India was first invited to a G-8 summit as an observer, in France. Then, India’s establishment was euphoric at such exalted recognition being bestowed upon India. It felt a sense of pride and gratification. Now, it feels frustrated that India wasn’t accommodated at the global High Table.

This has nothing to do with substantive summit-related issues. Four years ago too, there was no prior G-8 consultation with India. So, either the Indian establishment has suddenly developed a strong moral urge to reform the skewed world order. Or, it feels it’s being denied its “rightful” place: the world must acknowledge not just India’s emergence, but her arrival, as a Great Power!

The first proposition doesn’t make sense. India has progressively retreated from the agenda of reforming the world order. It wants to be accommodated in it—whether as a permanent member of a slightly expanded United Nations Security Council, a “strategic partner” of the United States, or “dialogue partner” of the European Union. The second proposition too is utterly unrealistic. With a rank of 126 in the UN Human Development Index among 177 nations, and with a GDP that’s only about 1/50th of the global economy or one-fourth that of Japan, India isn’t a legitimate entrant into the Rich Man’s Club.

India was only invited to the G-8 as an observer, not even as candidate-member. Its place in the global pecking order is qualitatively different from, say, Russia’s in 1998, when the G-7 (US, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Canada) invited it. Russia’s inclusion had to do with the end of the Cold War and the West’s plan to bind it down to capitalist policies. (It’s another matter that Russia still doesn’t feel and act like a full-fledged G-8 member. It does not participate in the group’s financial and economic discussions. Besides, it now feels threatened by NATO’s expansion and US preparations for a ballistic missile defence shield.)

The G-8 is a voluntary grouping without multilateral sanction—a club, whose membership is meant to exclude the bulk of the world’s states, including all of Africa and Latin America and most of Asia and Europe. The G-8’s origins go back to the 1973 oil crisis, in response to which the heads of the world’s six most industrialised nations met in France in 1975. With Canada’s admission one year on, the grouping became the G-7.

The G-8 comprises just 14 percent of the world’s population and 61 percent of its GDP. Its summits issue grandiloquent statements and make extravagant promises on health, education, energy security, employment, the environment and human rights. Compliance with commitments is poor—and falling, especially on aid, health, education, and food security. The story of the G-8’s unfulfilled promises on Africa is a scandal.

The G-8 suffers from a serious credibility crisis. It’s widely seen as promoting the narrow self-interest of the rich countries, and provokes angry protests. It exercises disproportionate influence on the way the global governance system operates and its rules are written.

The G-8 acts to perpetuate today’s skewed global order, in which power is distributed unequally. Take the IMF, for instance. Britain, with one percent of world population, has more of the IMF’s votes than all of sub-Saharan Africa, and the same votes as China and India together! The G-7 exercise veto power over the IMF—and also the World Bank. The G-8 has never agreed to redress these gross inequities.

Why India should want to join such a grouping passes comprehension. If India truly wants a just economic and political world order, it should demand radical reform of the UN system and the Bretton Woods Institutions (IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organisation) to democratise them and make them accountable to a majority of the world’s nations and peoples.

However, India has over the years moved away from these agendas. India has dropped its demand for a New International Economic Order and fair trade, and for global nuclear disarmament and peaceful resolution of conflicts. It has effectively weakened organisations that could provide some countervailing force against the hegemonic powers, including the Non-Aligned Movement, the Group of 77, and others.

Publicly, India pays lip-service to these. In private, Indian policy-makers ridicule them as irrelevant and outdated; they believe India belongs to a different, higher, league. Three years ago, India signed, with Brazil, a patently one-sided WTO deal with the US, EU and Australia behind the backs of most developing countries. Earlier, it undermined the South-South G-15 effort to cooperatively develop appropriate technologies. This bears testimony to the Indian elite’s craving for a place at the High Table within a skewed, unbalanced world. Nothing brought this out as vividly as India’s failed bid for a permanent Security Council seat in 2005.

The Indian elite has turned increasingly pro-Western, in particular, pro-US. The emerging India-US strategic alliance, with defence and economic ties, and the nuclear deal of 2005, are part of India’s re-alignment towards the US. But Indian policy-makers should know that India-US relations can never be equal, balanced or reciprocal. There’s far too much asymmetry between the two.

For all its homilies to India and promise to “help India become a great power in the 21st century”, the US does not believe that the “American Century” is giving way to an era of America’s decline, or its replacement by China or India, and to “somebody else’s century”. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said as much on June 8 in New York.

After Heilingendamm, India is groping for a G-5, with Brazil, China, Mexico and South Africa. The five account for 42 percent of the world’s population, and have common interests on energy, migration, trade negotiations, etc. Theoretically, they can create an alternative pole of attraction to the G-8. The G-5 are indeed growing rapidly in economic and strategic importance. They represent three times more people than the G-8.

However, their weight must not be exaggerated. Together, they account for under $6,700 billion in GDP, just about half of the US’s $13,250. India is not even half the size of France or Italy, leave alone Germany or Britain. More crucially, none of them has ever wielded system-shaping power. Yet, they can provide an alternative pole of attraction—but only if they pursue different economic policies and strategic approaches to the G-8’s.

If the G-5 advocate universal ethical values and speak for the world’s citizens, they could certainly acquire stature and credibility. But that’s what they are loath to do. They are content to adopt neoliberal policies and tail the West. Not one of them has a truly independent position vis-à-vis the US on Iraq, Israel or Iran. Leave alone representing the world’s public, their leaders hardly represent their own people.

Consider the irony. Three of the G-5’s top leaders are neoliberal renegades from earlier agendas like the mixed economy, governing the market, and search for liberal-radical alternatives: namely, Messrs Manmohan Singh, Lula da Silva and Thabo Mbeki. China’s Hu Jintao represents total continuity with Deng Xiao-Ping’s neoliberalism. He’s averse to rocking the global boat until China further “develops” herself. And Mexico’s President Calderon is a Right-wing conservative accused of having stolen an election from his Left-wing rival. He follows a slavishly pro-American policy on the economy and on narcotics.

That’s not the stuff of which radical reformers are made. The G-5 leaders are poor candidates for countering the West’s malign global influence, resisting the US’s imperial project, or proactively supporting the interests of a majority of the world’s peoples. They must reform themselves domestically before they can play a progressive world role.

An edited version of this article was published by Khaleej Times