India's Raisina Dialogue exposes discord on big international issues

Recently returned from attending South Asia's largest international affairs conference, the Raisina Dialogue, Asia Media Centre manager Graeme Acton reports on the mood of the meeting and some of the topics that took centre stage.

Four people sitting on chairs on stage at the Raisina Dialogue with an audience watching

“Never in the long range of history has the world been in such a state of flux as today. Never has there been such anxious questioning, so much doubt and bewilderment, so much examining of old institutions, existing ills and suggested remedies” 

Those are the words of India’s first President, Jarawhal Nehru, writing in 1947.

Some 76 years later here we are, and here is India.

Earlier this month the Indian capital New Delhi was awash with motorcades, security details and diplomats from across the globe for the Raisina Dialogue.

Hosted by the Indian External Affairs Ministry and the think-tank Observer Research Foundation, the summit arrived off the back of a G-20 foreign ministers’ meeting, notable mostly for the apparent lack of consensus regarding Ukraine and a number of other issues.

Raisina’s attendees this year included Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, and the foreign ministers from the QUAD countries: Australia, India, Japan, and the United States), former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the foreign ministers of Mexico, Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa (among others). 

Raisina is fast becoming one of the crucial meetings of its type around the globe, although it seemed to go over the heads many in this part of the world.

The mood of the conference in my view: polite distrust, violent agreement and a discreet and specific layer of cynicism over Russia.

Over three days and dozens of panels and one-on-one discussions delegates gained access to debates across a vast global agenda:  Asian security, food security, counterterrorism, liberalism and democracy, the Middle East, climate change, the debt crisis, the Quad and Ankus, as well as the relationship between cricket and politics, and other issues.

New Delhi has signalled plans to highlight the priorities of the Global South during its tenure as chair in 2023. At Raisina, this strategy was very much in play, with India taking the role of speaking for the Global South, a role it initially carved out as leader of the Nonaligned Movement in the 1960’s.

But India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was not alone on stage, joined there by Mauro Vieira of Brazil, Marcelo Ebrard of Mexico, Naledi Pandor of South Africa, and Mohammad Shahriar Alam from Bangladesh. All four foreign ministers took their chances to ask the West to do more – more in Myanmar, more to address the climate crisis, food security, and more to alleviate the systemic problems faced by a huge number of developing nations.

Across the sprawling event loomed the spectre of Ukraine, tainting many of the panel discussions, and springing to the fore during a remarkable single-handed session with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, who endured the jeering and derision of an international audience for thirty minutes in one lunchtime session, in an at times farcical defence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The second dominating issue was the QUAD, with Foreign Ministers from Australia, India, Japan and the US issuing a joint statement, and a panel in which all four ministers made their perspectives clear.  The joint statement rubber-stamped previous commitments to a free and open Indo-Pacific, a US-led rules-based order, moves to strengthen counter-terror measures, freedom of navigation (cue South China Sea), ASEAN centrality, and numerous other commitments from this “force for good.”

The mood of the conference in my view: polite distrust, violent agreement and a discreet and specific layer of cynicism over Russia.

Russia, China, North Korea, again they were all on the naughty step.

A poster for India's prime minister on it and the text Big Responsibility, bigger ambitions

Modi’s picture adorned most G20 billboards

The Modi government made much of the both the G20 and Raisina as a boost to its prestige to a domestic audience. Modi’s picture adorned most G20 billboards, assuring “vigorous ambition” and the like.

And while India’s remarkable Foreign Minister Jaishankar had the crowd in fits over his cricket-is-politics comparisons, it was obvious Delhi felt more in the driver’s seat than usual, and keen to press that advantage. As this Raisina Dialogue wound to a close, delegates left the capital with a feeling India has perhaps found a new place on the global stage.

 J Nehru again: “Who will dare to crush the spirit of India, which has found rebirth again and again after so many crucifixions”.

In 2023, who indeed.