Representatives of the international press corps who converged to cover the G20 Leaders’ Summit in New Delhi were content with facilities at the sparkling, sprawling media centre. What they lacked was access to first-hand information.
One such journalist from an Asian country — who had come for the first time to India for such a mega event — acknowledged the facilities and support provided at the venue. He pointed out that he had the experience from earlier meetings that such sessions are not open to the media. Top officials brief the media from time to time about important developments.
However, he contended that meetings on the sidelines, bilateral or pull-aside meetings, are usually followed by a briefing — whether formal or not. At the New Delhi Summit, groups of international journalists had access to their respective state heads but such interactions were not open to reporters from other countries.
Most leaders came accompanied by a media entourage that enjoyed regular briefings and updates. This is a norm, not the rule. Such briefings are usually informal and internal and not accessible to other ournalists. Thus, nuggets of information leaked out through friendly insiders or at informal gatherings. The privileged few who could access such information reported it from their own viewpoints.
When the US President Joe Biden went to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official residence at 7 Lok Kalyan Marg for a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the summit, the accompanying White House press corps, which usually accompanies POTUS around the world, was sequestered in a bus outside the venue, out of the line of sight of the two leaders.
It’s a no-brainer that the travelling press corps didn’t take the restriction of media freedom lightly. A slew of articles, highlighting the state of affairs of the Indian mediascape, appeared in the international press. They were anything but flattering.
Meanwhile, the host nation’s media management team projected that Indian negotiators pulled off a diplomatic coup by omitting naming Russia as an aggressor in Ukraine and managing issuance of a joint statement that has eluded G20 since the Bali Leaders’ Summit. The intense negotiations that preceded the drafting of the New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration became known after the comments of Germany’s Ambassador to India, Philipp Ackermann, at a select gathering on September 12.
Russia did not want the word “war”, Ukraine wanted “war against Ukraine” and Germany wanted “territorial integrity” in the declaration, according to news reports of the select briefing by the German ambassador. In the final declaration, the word “war” was used, but it was used as “war in Ukraine” and not “war against Ukraine”, and “territorial integrity” too found mention. The ambassador stated to a small group of journalists that Chancellor Olaf Scholz was “very satisfied” with the G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration that “exceeded expectations”.
The statement reflects the achievements of the team led by the G20 Sherpa of India during its presidency year, Amitabh Kant. Taking to social media on September 10, Kant wrote on X (formerly Twitter): “The most complex part of the entire #G20 was to bring consensus on the geopolitical paras (Russia-Ukraine). This was done over 200 hours of non-stop negotiations, 300 bilateral meetings, 15 drafts. In this, I was greatly assisted by two brilliant officers – @NagNaidu08 & @eenamg.”
The most complex part of the entire #G20 was to bring consensus on the geopolitical paras (Russia-Ukraine). This was done over 200 hours of non -stop negotiations, 300 bilateral meetings, 15 drafts. In this, I was greatly assisted by two brilliant officers – @NagNaidu08 & @eenamg pic.twitter.com/l8bOEFPP37
— Amitabh Kant (@amitabhk87) September 10, 2023
The officers he referred to were part of what he called the “young, dynamic and committed” team. It comprised Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers Abhay Thakur, Ashish Sinha, Eenam Gambhir, and K. Nagaraj Naidu. He lauded them for delivering the “100% consensus” on the New Delhi Declaration, calling it “Outstanding work, all credit to them”.
Diplomatically, while India has moved closer to the United States in recent times, the South Asian giant has managed to retain ties with Russia. The United States looks at India as the likely counter to China’s aggression. Meanwhile, India imported crude oil from Russia even as President Vladimir Putin faced sanctions from the West.
Thus, the biggest uncertainty when drafting the New Delhi Declaration loomed over the question of addressing the war, where the US and other Western nations held views differing from those of Russia and China. Even the final meeting of the G20 Sherpas before the Summit, held over September 3-7 at Manesar, near Gurugram, in Haryana, failed to break the deadlock.
It was just before the G20 leaders convened at the Bharat Mandapam on September 9, that a new draft was prepared and circulated by India and accepted by all at the proverbial last moment. Diplomatese was thus evident in the sentences framed over the “war in Ukraine”. Though the Declaration managed a balancing act in the final draft, Ukraine was not too happy.
Avoiding the press
It was reported by several media outlets that the US government requested a joint press conference, but the Indian government was unrelenting. This was pretty much in line with Modi’s aversion to unscripted interviews and press conferences since coming to power in 2014. Prior to that, he would often land on the sidelines of important televised events or crisis and hold impromptu informal press conferences. At that time the Indian media played along, just like it’s doing now, but in favour of the party in power.
The significance of Biden’s flying to Vietnam en route home to address the press on G20 and his bilateral meeting with Modi wasn’t lost on anyone.
The POTUS press conference in Vietnam — globally televised and streamed live on X — addressed issues that weren’t entirely unknown to the media contingent that had attended the G20 proceedings in New Delhi. He said that he had raised issues regarding human rights and freedom of press during his meeting with Modi.
Had there been a joint press conference in Delhi, such issues would naturally have come up during the media interaction — as happened during Modi’s last US visit. What Biden said in Vietnam is also mentioned in para 78 of the G20 Leaders’ Declaration: “The leaders re-emphasized that the shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights, inclusion, pluralism, and equal opportunities for all citizens are critical to the success our countries enjoy and that these values strengthen our relationship.”
Similarly, there was word that UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s bilateral meeting had to be rescheduled due to Biden’s dinner meeting. If true, it did not appear to matter much to either premier, who carried on with their warm namaste and embrace, and a bilateral meeting the next day.
In a statement on September 11, Prime Minister Sunak told the British Parliament that he had three aims at the G20 Summit. The first was to “increase the diplomatic pressure on Russia and call out their shameful disruption of global food supplies in the Black Sea”. He contended, “At the G20, leaders united in calling out the ‘human suffering’ caused by Putin’s war. Ukraine has the right to export its goods through international waters and they have the moral right to ship grain that is helping feed the world.”
Thus, it was not only Germany’s Chancellor who returned home “very satisfied”, so, it seemed, did the UK PM too. A good story for the Indian media to play up over a couple of days at least.
In fact, since the time the news about the G20 Delhi Declaration was confirmed, the media started looking forward to the presence of Prime Minister Modi himself. The grapevine buzzed at the sprawling, state-of-the-art media centre that it was the “genius and charisma” of the Prime Minister which finally led to a statement being released.
He did visit the media centre, but late at night on Sunday and did not make any statement or take questions. US media was said to have been particularly unhappy over the September 8 dinner meeting incident.
The extent to which the media was corralled at the G20 Summit can be judged from the fact that none of the bilateral meetings on the sidelines was followed by a joint briefing. One viewpoint attributes this to the efforts of the prime minister to try to resolve contentious issues in bilateral meetings before the final draft of the Delhi Declaration was circulated for consensus.
That itself was the “big news”, as brought out by Ackermann’s observations. According to him, the Sherpas from India, Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia “shared the final text of the declaration, a hard copy on paper, with the Sherpas Friday (September 8) night and asked them to ‘take it or leave it’,” reported the Indian Express. But there is no way this piece of diplomatic grandstanding by the Indian team, leaked to meek and pliant Indian media, can be verified in the information vacuum that Modi seems to have perfected during his nine-year rule. His refusal to conduct an open press conference is part of the plan where Modi remains both the message and the messenger.