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Is it time for a stronger India-Brazil relationship?

Palácio do Planalto [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Modi and Bolsonaro might be the leaders to transform this stagnant relationship.

On the sidelines of the 11th BRICS summit in Brazil, the enthusiasm of Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi to engage Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro was evident as he extended an invitation to the Brazilian leader to be the chief guest at India’s January 2020 Republic Day celebrations, signaling New Delhi’s desire to probe a meaningful relationship with Brazil. The possibility of stronger India-Brazil ties could have an underlying effect on the future of world order, especially given the potential of resource-rich Brazil and the demands of a “rising” India, two countries that have for long shared similar worldviews.

Considering the rise of right-wing leadership in Brazil and “nationalist” Modi’s tightening grip on India’s foreign policy has led some to speculate that the time for a robust India-Brazil partnership might have arrived. More importantly, could the likelihood of Modi-Bolsonaro association translate into a stronger India-Brazil relationship?

Since the institutionalization of the BRICS grouping in 2009, India’s interest to redefine its relations with Brazil, regional power in South America that has global aspirations, has been gaining momentum. Though little attention has been paid to the dynamics of India-Brazil ties, the various complementarities shared by India and Brazil in their foreign policy histories make the relationship interesting.

India and Brazil: Shared Worldviews

In recent years, Brazil and India have demonstrated an interest in having a more decisive role in international institutions, one that is proportional to their geographic size and share in world population. Both have campaigned for a UN Security Council permanent seat. Like India, Brazil has intended to preserve autonomy in its foreign policy against the whims and fancies of Washington. For a considerable period, both also saw themselves as leaders of the third world by raising issues that concern developing countries and demanding a reform of the international institutions such as the United Nations (UN) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Their cooperation is also reflected in their shared opposition to the violation of Libya’s sovereignty by the West in 2011.

Moreover, they sought pragmatic relations with Iran even in times of growing U.S. pressure against the Islamic government based in Tehran. Despite calls from the U.S. to degrade ties with Iran that Washington considers a threat to its regional allies, India has been hesitant to fully severe its energy and infrastructure ties with Tehran. Brazil, too, instead of aligning with views of the West, has imparted importance to its relations with Iran and has further made efforts to mediate differences between the West and Iran.

This shared interest in having autonomy and diversity in their foreign engagements also provides some context to the bilateral relationship. Earlier during the Cold War, India was viewed with suspicion in the West due to the nature of its relationship with the Soviet Union. However, India’s interest in the diversification of its political relations with other regions significantly increased after this period. On the other hand, Brazil under the Lula administration, showed interest in engaging new regions such as Asia and Africa, keeping in line with its interests in preserving autonomy in its foreign policy.

Owing to their geographical significance and relative advantages, Brazil in South America and India in South Asia are also considered as “regional” powers that wield influence in their respective neighborhoods. Recently found economic growth alongside their foreign policy activism that offers alternative narratives to those of the West is institutionalized in the BRICS and IBSA multilateral groupings that provide a reference to their “soft balancing” strategy that resents the dominant views of the West. Ultimately both are considered as emerging powers with great power aspirations. That said, India under Modi and Brazil under Bolsonaro would have to think beyond these complementarities to give a direction to the bilateral relationship, that as of now, remains underdeveloped.

The possibility of a strategic partnership between India and Brazil is incentivized since there remains little or no disagreement in their worldviews. Also, since there exists convergence in their statuses and roles in world affairs at various intervals in history, a review of this relationship is not beyond the scope for political leadership either in Brazil or India.

Moreover, there is mutual goodwill in both countries regarding each other. India’s civilizational practices such as yoga and Ayurveda are gaining popularity in Brazil, and the former’s growing economic and political profile further attracts attention in the minds of Brazil’s strategic community. In India, Brazil wields enough soft power for this relationship to mature. Until recently, there existed little or no skepticism regarding Brazil and its positive image in India. However, Bolsonaro’s ascendency to the leadership position has cast doubts over Brazil’s image in some circles in India.

Alternatively, though Bolsonaro initially sought to impart little consideration to Brazil’s ties with China, Beijing’s prominent place in Brazil’s economy and pressure from the business lobby might inform Bolsonaro to reconsider this. Even then, there remains some understanding between India and Brazil regarding China. Brazil like India was little receptive to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and there is discussion in Brazil regarding China’s growing economic influence in South America. This shared concern regarding China could be another motivation for India-Brazil relations.

However, despite Brazil’s relative advantages in multiple areas such as energy, agriculture, defense, and space, India has been slow to develop a dedicated framework of cooperation with Brazil. Similarly, while the position of Asia in Brazil’s international trade has transformed, there remains no evident strategic vision for the Indo-Pacific region or India.

India’s economic relationship with Brazil is largely viewed as a buyer-seller relationship, though the latter is an important trade partner in the region. From an Indian viewpoint, Brazil is seen as an investment destination for Indian businesses, at best. That, however, does not wholly describe the relationship’s value for India. Brazil played a crucial role in India-Mercosur Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) that improves India’s access to the large South American market. In 2017-18, trade with Mercosur member countries was of over $10 billion. India’s trade with Brazil in 2018-19 stood at more than $8 billion. Top export items from India include organic chemicals, chemical-based products, and pharmaceuticals.

The Bolsonaro Factor

Focusing on themes such as counter-terrorism that have little relevance in India-Brazil relations might not be the correct route to reviewing India-Brazil relations. Both Modi and Bolsonaro are known to adopt a tough stand on a range of issues, and their recent meeting underscores their desire to increase cooperation in diverse areas such as defense and agriculture. More importantly, both face similar challenges including the daunting task of alleviating poverty, rising income inequalities, tackling corruption, and inefficiency in the government.

The rise of Bolsonaro in Brazil and Modi in India, both of whom are known as the leaders of the right-wing in their countries and have nationalistic orientations, might be useful internal shocks that could eventually transform this stagnant relationship.

This commentary originally appeared in The Diplomat.

Ketan Mehta (ORF)
27 November 2019

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