Brazilian President Jair Messias Bolsonaro’s four-day visit to India, to bolster relations between the two big democracies and “growing economies,” in the world, holds significance for at least two reasons. One, the controversial reputation of Bolsonaro, as a hard conservative misogynist, and a homophobic politician, and second, New Delhi’s attempt to deepen contact with a close partner in world politics through BIRICS, IBSA, G4 and so forth. The point to ponder, however, is whether his visit had contributed to consolidating bilateralism or it was a routine visit accompanied with usual diplomatic rituals.
Brazil is the biggest country in South America and the fifth largest in the world. Bolsonaro was the Chief Guest at the Republic Day celebrations, an occasion where his predecessors have too attended the same function twice before. For the sake of optimism, and that is one of the basic principles in building relationship, every visit adds to boosting contacts. Thus, this visit should have done so.
For a start, Brazil, the biggest economy in South America, was fast emerging as a significant world player. President Bolsonaro was accompanied by four Members of Parliament and a fairly large business delegation. As many as 15 Agreements were signed covering almost all sectors from animal husbandry to cyber security. The strategic partnership signed in 2006 was sought to be enhanced by adding institutional mechanisms for greater interaction etc.
Second, the bilateral trade which stood at $8.2 billion in 2018-19, is planned to be increased to $15 billion by 2022. Third, the usual international concern of Climate Change is to be addressed in cooperation between New Delhi and Sao Paulo. Along with that, cooperation is to deepen on fighting terrorism, a primary pre-occupation of India’s foreign policy.
Historically, India-Brazil formal contact goes back to 1948. But the informal contact is over five centuries old when Portuguese Pedro Alvares made a stopover in Brazil in 1500 on his way to India. That is when Brazil was discovered too. Both countries took a common position against Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) in 1967, had been in the same tent on South-South Cooperation, and in other multilateral forums. Both are a claimant to a permanent seat in the Security Council. Their foreign policy approaches somewhat converge; Brazil advocates reciprocal multilateralism, where as New Delhi emphasises on strategic autonomy.
Notably, optimism in growth of bilateralism stems from the personality and political predilection of both the leaders — Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi. Admittedly, Modi’s skill in befriending world leader has been a plus in India’s foreign policy. He will easily beat Del Carnegie, the legendary guru on ‘how to win over people’. But the hard realities of trade and economy cannot be substituted by charm offensives. This has been a big minus in India’s aspirations to be a world leader.
Before evaluating the impact of the visit and continuing with the spirit of optimism, President Bolsonaro is ironically, approximates to Modi’s kind of politics. He is a nationalist, averse to secularism, believes in polarising the electorate, on the far-night of ideological spectrum, and a populist. Modi would discard such political stances in public, but observers suspect that Modi government’s policies are aimed at building Hindu hegemony in Indian politics, in violation of secularism however it was understood and practiced. At the least, secularism meant no official discrimination on the basis of religion. Both Bolsonaro and Modi seek close relations with United States and Israel. Both fumble on China and wish to engage with it.
The big difference is Bolsonaro is a confirmed misogynist. He is notoriously referred to as such, as he once told a lady opponent that, “I will not rape you as you are not worthy of it, you are ugly’. On another occasion, Bolsonaro said, “refugees are the scum of the earth”. Modi is certainly far more sophisticated than that.
However, the similarities in foreign policy approaches should complement Brazil and India. But looking at the trade relations, the picture is dismal. Both economies add up to $4.5 trillion, and have 1.5 billion people between them, Brazil having 210 million, India’s investment in Brazil is about $6 billion, whereas Brazil’s investment in India is $1 billion. From New Delhi’s point of view, Brazil still considers China to be the main trading partner with a whopping trade of $110 billion. Obviously, New Delhi cannot compete with the deep pockets of China. But is New Deli even attempting to do so?
Arguably, New Delhi is quite good at signing agreements, making policies, whether they are equally good in pursuing and implementing the agreements! Both countries signed agreements on health, medicine, bio-energy, oil and natural gas, animal husbandry and cyber security and so on. All these sound good. But New Delhi should tap into Brazilian unique strengths and smoothen any rough edges in the relationship.
In particular, Brazil is the world leader in ethanol production. India has considerable potential for ethanol, which can supplement or even substitute the use of fossil fuel. New Delhi should go right ahead in transferring Brazilian expertise, and experience in augmenting ethanol production. This sector alone should be a front-runner in India and Brazil relations. Likewise, Brazilians are fond of India’s alternative health culture like yoga and meditation etc. New Delhi should do more to popularise this practice and deepen its cultural impact.
It is more strategic and beneficial to taps the USPs in respective countries, than signing plethora of agreements in all and sundry sectors, and using excessive diplomatic platitudes. The rough edge I was referring to is the unhealthy and unresolved competition in sugarcane cultivation. Brazil has petitioned WTO against India for subsidising the sugarcane producers. Reportedly, Modi and Bolsonaro in their one-to-one meeting agreed to resolve it bilaterally. Until it is done, it will continue to worry our sugarcane producers.
Finally, both the countries seem to be lost in BRICS, as it is mainly driven by China without a common vision. Can Modi and Bolsonaro join hands in taming China in BRICS? Will Brazil even want to do so? Is India ready or even preparing to take on China? Climate Change has become a compulsory topic in any international forum, or even bilateral meetings. It requires a deeper conceptual and structural rejig of world politics to tackle. Interestingly, Brazil does not subscribe to the scientific research on Climate Change.
One would consider Bolsonaro’s visit a diplomatic ‘Passe’ unless New Delhi has a robust strategy to enhance its international trade and go for its target of a $5 trillion economy by 2024.