As superpowers bicker, Brazil & India chart their own course

When Romario-Bebeto-Dunga’s Brazil won the football World Cup in 1994, a well-known Indian news anchor smilingly announced on television, “We are getting breaking news that celebrations in Kolkata have surpassed that in Rio.”

Brazil wields enormous soft power in India because of football, but when President Jair Bolsonaro arrives in Delhi on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation as the chief guest for India’s January 26 Republic Day event, there are more serious reasons why the visit will be watched very closely. Not just in India – worldwide.

It’s fair to say that the mainstream media treats both Modi and Bolsonaro as aberrations from the liberal status quo. Modi for India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, and Bolsonaro for his outspoken opposition to leftist politics. But these are the least important issues at hand when these two massive democracies meet. Far more important is their shared belief in a multipolar world, outside the influence of the traditional power centers.

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For one, India and Brazil have certain similar approaches in diplomacy. Both have not submitted entirely to a particular bloc – whether it is the US, Russia or China. They have stuck to their individual standpoints on several issues.

Both opposed the violation of Libya’s sovereignty by the West in 2011, for instance. Both have managed to maintain relations with Iran despite crippling sanctions against it and the West treating it like a pariah.

Both seek a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council and greater influence in global bodies commensurate with their size, population and growing economies. And both see Africa as their diplomatic and economic playground of the future.

Alternative power play

As a conflict at several levels rages between superpowers America and China on one hand and the US and a resurgent Russia on the other, the ‘smaller, big powers’ like India and Brazil are looking not to be sandwiched. They want their own power play, away from the mess created by the superpowers.

India, despite its closeness to the US, has not diluted its traditional friendship with Russia. The Bolsonaro administration, despite its baggage about Russia’s Soviet past and its distrust of communism, sees the neo-Christian conservatism under Putin as common ground for a relationship.

BRICS may not have the same resonance any more, but both Brazil and India are looking for strong bilateral arrangements in a post-globalised world.

In case a war breaks out over Iran, both would want to be away from the quagmire, with pragmatic alternative alliances in place.

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Big economic push

The Brazilian economy has improved under Bolsonaro but is still performing below potential, while India is in an economic slowdown. Both nations will likely want to help each other on the economy, so expect some big announcements.

Besides seven ministers in his delegation, Bolsonaro is bringing representatives of 50 major companies ranging from agriculture to defense. India and Brazil will sign a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT). Brazil will also be the first country to sign an investment protection agreement with India, ensuring that capital investments in each other’s nations are safe, protected and encouraged.

Indian sugarcane farmers are protesting sugar giant Brazil’s complaint at the World Trade Organisation against India’s cane subsidies, but that won’t get in the way of major agreements on bio-energy and ethanol production, pension fund investments, agriculture, oil and gas production, animal husbandry, crime and cybersecurity.

The Modi and Bolsonaro meeting may not be the most explosive, but when two of the world’s biggest emerging powers meet on a very special occasion, it is a clear signal to the big boys: We are here to play our game, not yours.

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