The Group of Twenty’s (G-20) large and heterogeneous membership has always been a double-edged sword: a source of legitimacy on the one hand, a challenge for collective action on the other. Against the background of Russia’s war against Ukraine and intensifying China-U.S. competition, avoiding stasis has turned into an exercise of paramount diplomatic skill.
India’s 2023 G-20 presidency therefore comes at a decisive moment for the group. As a major economic power, key strategic player, and now the most populous country on earth, India possesses the political heft to carve out a role for the G-20 in a drastically changed geopolitical context – and it is making digital technology governance a centerpiece of its G-20 presidency.
The G-20 digital agenda has proven surprisingly robust despite geopolitical turbulence. In the November 2022 G-20 Bali leaders’ declaration, member states recognized the importance of advancing inclusive cooperation on digital trade, expanding affordable and high-quality digital infrastructure, enabling cross-border data flows and developing digital skills and literacy.
Under no circumstances was this an easy win. Just two months before the November summit, the G-20 digital ministers had left Indonesia without agreement on a joint declaration. But digital is among those areas where careful optimism still prevails.
Yet, more importantly, India’s digital governance push signposts its strategic ambitions in this space. At the Bali summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the rollout of digital public infrastructure as “the most remarkable change of our era.” Premised on an agenda of inclusive growth and sustainable development, the Indian government is mobilizing the presidency to bolster its aspirations as a digital powerhouse and leading power, especially in the Global South. New Delhi’s preparations for bringing its “human-centric approach to technology” to the grand diplomatic stage are in full swing.
As one of the world’s largest and fastest growing digital markets and consumer bases globally, the scale and pace of India’s digital transformation have superseded that of many advanced economies. According to a study by the Reserve Bank of India, India’s digital economy grew 2.4 times faster than the overall economy. Given the rate of growth in India’s digital sector, it is in the country’s interest to sustain and encourage greater investments that can potentially drive the total output of the economy. For these reasons, India sees the digital economy as fundamental not just to its own developmental project, but also to its international image and status. It has the potential to generate jobs, facilitate citizen-centered inclusive growth, and enhance connectivity.
The country is also building on notable successes at harnessing digital technology to improve its citizens’ access to public services and economic mobility. To this end, it is progressing well into its ambitious “India stack” digitization project. It comprises four technology layers designed to provide individuals with digital identities, an interoperable payments system, virtual documents and verification, and personal data management through regulated intermediaries. These efforts also encompass the creation of UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) and the Aadhaar biometric system, where every citizen of the country can obtain a unique, permanent, digital ID. In 2015, India launched its Digital India campaign to showcase its rising digital profile and provide it with added impetus.
India is now further capitalizing on its digitization efforts to present itself as a model and leader for the Global South. Its G-20 digital diplomacy is geared toward both linking and representing the Global South, with an aim to rally it around a wider developmental agenda that centers, among other items, on connectivity infrastructure, digital financial inclusion, and innovative health solutions. Earlier this month at the official G-20 dialogue forum with the global business community (B20), India offered its locally developed 5G technology and India stack application program interface “to the world as part of its commitment to the “global community.”
Indian leaders have often framed the country’s digital journey in the context of enhanced traceability to eradicate black money circulation or reducing bureaucracy around citizen-centered services. They therefore demonstrate a transformation of India’s own path to modernity – with the ability of shedding some layers of its “developing” status – befitting its image of a “rising power.”
More fundamentally, the Indian approach to digital governance echoes its foreign policy doctrine, which, as seen in its view on Russian aggression in Ukraine, is premised on strategic autonomy and the pursuit of an independent voice in international affairs. In the digital realm, that translates into an approach centering on “data sovereignty” and countering “data colonialism.” The former implies the sovereign right of each country to regulate data originating within its borders, while the latter suggests a view that ensures that a country’s data is not used for foreign private companies’ profit but for improving domestic public services and economic growth. Evidently, this approach differs from the G-7 countries’ commitment to promoting cross-border “data free flow with trust.” Although distinctions are more blurred, it is also being positioned by India as an alternative to China’s cyber sovereignty model.
Although India comes to the digital governance debate through what it sees as an independent approach, its ability to push this agenda will be limited by the estranged nature of the geopolitical climate that is straining the G-20. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is pressing countries to pick sides. While working to reduce its military dependency on Russia, India has resisted overtly condemning its aggression against Ukraine. Given the likelihood that President Vladimir Putin will attend the G-20 Summit in New Delhi this September, India’s presidency will reflect the extent to which it can retain this position and tread the delicate path of leading a summit that includes Russia and the major Western powers. This will also penetrate the area of digital diplomacy.
On the face of it, India’s G-20 digital agenda may well succeed at affirming the group’s relevance in turbulent times. By doubling down on the opportunities of digital technology for development, de-emphasizing issues such as internet freedom, and promoting what it purports to be an independent governance model, the Indian presidency is increasing its prospects of crafting at least basic consensus – maybe even a ministerial declaration. But India is walking a tightrope: By declining to use the G-20 as a platform for meaningfully challenging digital authoritarianism, it may reduce its own ability to capitalize on its international stature as the world’s largest digital democracy. Whether its digital diplomacy push in the G-20 pays the longer-term strategic dividends that India seeks thus remains far from certain.