HOSTING multilateral summits is a matter of great prestige for states, as world leaders gather at the same table to talk global politics and discuss the pressing issues of the day. While the Covid-19 pandemic shifted many of these meetings online, a worldwide drop in cases means that face-to-face interactions have resumed. Yet it is strange why India, which was due to host the in-person SCO summit in July, has decided to organise the event virtually. The fact is that personal interactions between world leaders can have a far greater impact than a Zoom meeting. The Indian external affairs ministry has not explained the decision, though some media outlets in India have observed that Delhi may have had second thoughts about hosting the Russian, Chinese and Pakistani leaders in person. Unless the organisers clarify, these speculations may have weight.
Where Russia is concerned, though India continues to trade with Moscow, perhaps hosting Vladimir Putin may not have gone well with India’s Western friends, hence Delhi’s decision to shift to virtual mode in an effort to not further offend Washington and Brussels. Regarding China, relations have been frosty, with a border dispute high in the Himalayas descending into deadly confrontations between troops several times over the past few years. In fact, Narendra Modi recently told a media outlet that “peace and tranquillity in the border areas” was required in order to foster normal bilateral ties with Beijing. Therefore, moving the SCO summit online may be a subtle snub targeted at Xi Jinping. It remains to be seen whether Mr Putin and Mr Xi attend the G20 summit later this year, also due to be hosted by India. As for Pakistan, the BJP leadership would not have felt comfortable with a cordial exchange between Mr Modi and Shehbaz Sharif in Delhi under the SCO aegis. India is due to hold a general election in 2024, and the BJP will want to continue to appear ‘tough’ on Pakistan in order to please its most rabid voters. Besides, the reception given to Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari during the SCO foreign ministers’ moot in May by the Indian side was quite cold, and there is no indication the prime minister would have received a warmer welcome. Ultimately, the presence of such key world leaders in Delhi would have made headlines. The virtual summit is unlikely to make ripples.
Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2023