Jair Bolsonaro's Republic Day visit an opportunity for India and Brazil to put to rest ghost of 1961, forge path to prosperity

Sreemoy Talukdar

Editor's Note: This article was first published on 24 January 2020. It is being republished in view of the 71st Republic Day parade, where Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro is in attendance as the chief guest.

A resource-rich Brazil and an energy-hungry India, with no major dissonances in their worldview, congruity in middle-power status and facing similar challenges in their development curve, should be much more than just "strategic partners" locked in a buyer-seller relationship. That they aren't owed as much to baggage of history as lack of imagination from leadership.

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Ever since Brazil opposed India's move in 1961 to liberate Goa from Portuguese rule, the relationship between the two nations have been lukewarm at best and frosty at worst. Things didn't change much even though trade relationship eventually developed, and diplomacy intensified. Ties still remained hostage to history even as both nations became members of plurilateral fora such as BRICS, IBSA, G-20 and in multilateral bodies such as the United Nations.

There's a chance to reset that relationship and introduce a new dynamic as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro arrives in India as the chief guest for Republic Day on a four-day tour from 24 to 27 January. The moment is opportune.

Prime minister Narendra Modi and Bolsonaro are strong leaders propelled by massive mandates. They are not bound by traditional thinking. Both are adept at risk-taking and spending political capital on issues that they reckon are central to their nations' interests.

This indicates that both are decisive leaders unafraid to take big, bold decisions.

In India's case, the leadership has shown the imagination to match its ambition. To project power and safeguard India's interests, India is finally showing a willingness to work hard and break old dogmas. India's foreign policy has become more proactive while not deviating from the central, autonomous tenet.

As Foreign Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar said during a recent occasion stressing on the need for greater engagement with the world: "I just came from Serbia, and I was honestly embarrassed to learn that I was the first foreign minister who had ever visited Serbia after it broke away from Yugoslavia. I hear this story over and over again€¦ The first (task) is to be visible, to be active, to engage, to be able to hear, smell, touch the world for yourself. If you don't do that your instincts are not going to be good, they are not going to be sound."

This greater engagement leads to greater confidence. Matched with a growing economy, India finally has the confidence to shape outcomes in international relations instead of being defensive.

We see a reflection of this mindset in India's willingness to step up the relationship with Brazil and vitalize ties. Announcing Bolsonaro's visit, a statement from India's ministry of external affairs lays out the fulcrum of greater engagement: "India and Brazil share a close and multifaceted relationship. Our bilateral relations are based on a common global vision, shared democratic values, and a commitment to foster economic growth of both countries."

Both nations understand that they have a dovetailing of interests. What kind of dovetailing?

While Brazil €" which has seen ties with neighbouring Argentina deteriorate €" looks to upgrade its trade partnership with India and tap its rapidly growing market, New Delhi is keen to exploit possibilities in resource-rich Latin America. Plus, there's oil.

Reports indicate that Bolsonaro will bring with him a delegation comprising seven ministers and 62 businessmen, including 12 defence industry leaders. Both nations may sign over 20 agreements in defence, energy, agriculture, healthcare and mineral sectors. The defence sector, claims a report in Economic Times, may witness joint production and industrial collaboration.

India, one of the world's biggest oil importers, needs to diversify its energy needs from the Gulf. Iraq remains its top supplier but in recent times India has started importing more crude from the US (a 72 percent jump in first five months of 2019). The instability in Gulf, US-Iran confrontation and threats of secondary sanctions from the US may drive India further away from middle east. This is where Brazil, one of world's top 10 oil exporters, sees a big opportunity.

Both nations may also sign a Bilateral Investment Treaty (a priority for the Modi government) and "allow investments in each other's pension funds, to help business processes and encourage the flow of investments."

The visit will also provide opportunity for greater intra-BRICS synergy, a non-western grouping that allows a platform for countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa to adhere to multi-polarity as opposed to multilateralism.

Despite the inherent difficulties of BRICS including clashing ideology and interests of member nations, flexibility and room for autonomous stance has helped sustain the platform.

Bolsonaro's visit may not only enhance bilateral trade that stands at a meagre $8.2 in 2018-19, greater intra-BRICS cooperation will be an area of priority for both leaders. Despite its many disappointments, as former foreign secretary Krishnan Srinivasan writes in The Hindu, BRICS has delivered the New Development Bank that "has so far financed over 40 projects at a cost of $12 billion. The BRICS countries are also developing a joint payments mechanism to reduce foreign trade settlements in US dollars."

As the Brazilian president arrives in India on maiden visit and attends the Republic Day parade, he will get an opportunity to brush up his personal association with Modi. Both leaders accord importance to personal chemistry in bilateral ties, and share similar notions about their nations having a greater say in global commons and reformation of global institutions such as United Nations or International Monetary Fund.

The Bolsonaro-Modi association has also been much talked-about in western media. Both are polarising figures and favourite whipping boys of liberal western media that see in their rise a threat to "liberal democracy" , even though both leaders have been chosen by their people and have reposed faith in democratic institutions.

While Modi remains western media's favourite villain, Bolsonaro's landslide win in 2018 has been blamed, among other things, on fake news and WhatsApp.

Both leaders think little of such criticism, and it could be one of the reasons why Modi extended an invitation to Bolsonaro. With such synergy in interests, the stage is set for India and Brazil to stitch a stronger, more multifaceted relationship.

 

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