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As G-20 meetings come to India, Modi launches a public relations blitz

Pedestrians walk past a billboard with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcoming delegates to the G-20 foreign ministers' meeting in New Delhi on March 1. (Manish Swarup/AP)
7 min

NEW DELHI — When most countries assume the rotating presidency of the Group of 20 nations, they usually host the meetings with relatively little fanfare. But when India’s leaders took over as host of the global summit this year, they opted for something less modest.

In the Indian capital, officials have projected a G-20 hologram onto Humayun’s Tomb, the famous Mughal-era monument. In remote states, local leaders have paraded G-20-themed floats during religious festivals. Standardized tests handed out to 10th-graders have come stamped with the “G-20 India” logo, which incorporates a lotus, the symbol of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And from New Delhi to Mumbai, roads have been blanketed by billboards that block the view of slums while reminding commuters that India, the “Mother of Democracy,” is now hosting important world leaders.

“Big responsibilities, bigger ambitions,” read the signs every few blocks, which feature the smiling visage of the prime minister himself, Narendra Modi.

With G-20 meetings scheduled in India this year — beginning with a finance ministers’ gathering in Bangalore in February and culminating in a leaders summit that will see President Biden fly into New Delhi in September — the Modi government has seized upon its role as host to mount an extraordinary public relations campaign. From billboards touting India’s arrival at “the global high table” to newspaper op-eds by cabinet ministers extolling India’s newfound influence, the advertising blitz is hammering home the message that Modi, a staunch nationalist, is winning clout and respect for India internationally.

While many leaders use foreign policy accomplishments to gain a domestic boost, the Modi government’s eagerness to showcase the G-20 and highlight his involvement in hot-button international issues points to an evolution in India’s politics, analysts say. As India has grown in wealth and influence, voters in the world’s fifth-largest economy are increasingly attuned to their country’s international role and image — thanks, in no small part, to the BJP’s relentless messaging.

“There is no question in my mind that the hype and excitement around India’s G-20 presidency are unlike anything that I’ve ever seen with any other country that has hosted the summit,” said Milan Vaishnav, head of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “What Modi has managed to do, which very few politicians have done in India, is make foreign policy a domestic political issue.”

Indian officials say they want to show India’s “best face” in an important year when Modi will welcome leaders like Biden, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Xi Jinping of China. As part of the G-20 events, India will host 215 meetings in 56 cities at a cost of more than $100 million, they say.

India will also use the forum to show off what officials say are India’s contributions to the world, including the government-run digital payments system that India hopes can be a model for other countries. In recent weeks, the Indian government has also bulldozed homeless shelters and slums in New Delhi, which activists say are part of a G-20 beautification campaign that is dislocating the poor.

At a news conference this month, Amitabh Kant, India’s G-20 coordinator, brushed aside suggestions that the government was using the G-20 for political gain and argued there was nothing wrong with India using the occasion to beautify its cities, pave roads and fill potholes.

“If you’re saying that we’re overdoing it because we’re [hosting the G-20] professionally, you’re sadly mistaken,” he said. “We haven’t done advertising. We’re doing branding.”

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To be sure, Modi is hardly the first Indian prime minister to burnish his reputation by projecting himself as a world leader. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, positioned himself as a leader among post-colonial nations who would remain “nonaligned” between the two rival blocs, the Soviet Union and the United States. Nehru’s daughter, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, also highlighted her international achievements and played up her hosting the 1983 retreat of Commonwealth nations in Goa.

Modi will head to the polls next year, where he could secure a third term as prime minister.

“Why shouldn’t G-20 be used for domestic politics?” Amit Shah, the powerful home minister and close Modi ally, told an Indian news service in February. “The way he has organized it, the entire world is stunned.”

In an interview, Vijay Chauthaiwale, the head of the BJP’s foreign affairs department, said his party’s emphasis on publicizing India’s growing stature resonates with everyday Indian voters.

For decades, foreign policy interested “only those who could speak English in a certain accent,” Chauthaiwale said. “India has now seen a paradigm shift. We are projecting a brand of the India of self-realization. Now the common man is also saying, ‘Modi went to meet Biden or Putin.’”

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Modi hosts a periodic radio talk show called Maan Ki Baat, where he tells listeners why he travels abroad, from Washington, D.C., to Paris. The BJP frequently shares photos of him hugging world figures, including former U.S. presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama and Meta’s chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg.

At a February event to launch a new book titled “Modi Shaping a Global Order in Flux,” the BJP party president, JP Nadda, boasted that Modi has visited 60 countries as prime minister and had the rare international standing to negotiate with both Putin and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky. Nadda said that by refusing to criticize Putin for launching the war, Modi had shown he could stand up to Western pressure.

“All countries may not appreciate the stand but everybody appreciated the fact that India took a stand,” Nadda said at the book launch. “India takes strong positions under Prime Minister Modi.”

In recent months, the government’s G-20 preparations have spawned a flurry of unusual headlines. Uber drivers in Delhi have been ordered to learn English — and how to treat women. Drones have been ordered to combat mosquitoes carrying dengue before foreign guests arrive. At the Taj Mahal, tourism officials built a wall of plants for G-20 guests to take selfies — but it collapsed. Loud music from a G-20 promotional event was blamed for possibly causing cracks at the Agra Fort, the sprawling, 500-year-old sandstone palace near the Taj.

Orijit Sen, an active graphic artist who made a comic book about the G-20 conference, said the publicity is ignoring the country’s deeper problems. “It’s just a chest-thumping exercise about fake achievements. It’s false propaganda that diverts the attention from failures.” His book, inspired by George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” depicts the G-20 leaders as animals trying to cover up the disquiet on the streets.

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Ashley Tellis, a former senior U.S. State Department official who was instrumental in negotiating a nuclear deal between India and the George W. Bush administration, said the campaign masks India’s lack of political clout to push through its position on issues like digital public goods, trade access, and ending the war in Ukraine.

“It will be very good PR for the prime minister. It will be very good PR for India,” Tellis said. But, he added, “much of the histrionics are actually designed to obscure the fact that India doesn’t have political power.”

Ashok Malik, a former policy adviser in India’s foreign ministry under Modi, said that while some critics called the G-20 an excessive “jamboree,” the fanfare appeals to the majority of Indians.

“Who are you and I to decide which aesthetics are kosher to the larger India and which are not?” he said. “Brazil, South Africa are next. I’m willing to bet that they will follow the India template.”