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With Maverick Bolsonaro, Will India-Brazil Ties Be Right?

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s President-elect from the Socialist Liberal Party and former Army Captain, has had an uneventful political life as a seven-time congressman so far. He was catapulted into the presidency at the October/November 2018 general election due to an ongoing economic recession in Brazil sparked by endemic corruption and loss of public faith in the main establishment parties: PT, the leftist Workers Party of Lula; PMDB, the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement of outgoing President Michel Temer; and right-leaning PSDB, the Brazilian Socialist Democratic Party of São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin.

Former President Lula’s ineligibility to stand due to a jail sentence paved the way for Bolsonaro’s election; he may have won anyway as the majority did not want “more of the same” but the contest could have been closer than it was with lightweight Fernando Haddad.

Bolsonaro is likened to Donald Trump and has tried to show he is cast in a similar mould. He has indicated his intention of recasting foreign policy to focus on advanced countries that can help Brazil with trade and technology rather than carry on with the current exploitative nature of China’s relations with his country. Doubts have been expressed over him continuing with BRICS as this forum is seen by some as an anti-western front. And within Latin America itself, Bolsonaro has vowed never to let Brazil become another Venezuela, which is a way of saying that he will do his utmost to stop the Left from coming back to power.

Brazil is not like the United States or Europe as its economy is in a shambles and Bolsonaro can be expected to come face to face with harsh realities sooner rather than later. His dealings with China may go through some bumps but in the end, the influential and pragmatic Itamaraty (Brazilian Foreign Office) will be able to persuade him to come to terms with the fact that China, as the biggest importer of commodities and minerals from Brazil, and its largest investor, remains crucial to its economic well-being.

Similarly, the reorientation towards U.S. and Europe isn’t going to happen without a cost which Brazil may not be prepared to pay. BRICS is not really an anti-western forum and has evolved into a useful platform for five important world leaders to meet every year. All five countries have a say in global affairs and their leaders have international stature. Bolsonaro can be expected to use this forum to his advantage as it would enhance his profile.

With India, Bolsonaro can be expected to follow a transactional approach which is actually good for both sides. Brazil can be a major player in terms of food and water security and it is high time India went past the stage of merely thinking about these vital interests. Our oil majors have major stakes in Brazil and most of our pharma companies have a presence in São Paulo. Tata-Marcopolo is perhaps the most visible joint venture in India.

IBSA has not progressed due to dues not being paid and this grouping getting subsumed within the larger framework of BRICS. But expect the Brazilian Foreign Office to persuade Bolsonaro to revive IBSA as strengthening the grouping could mean assuming a leadership role in the developing world without the pervasive influence of China coming in the way. This suits India as well.

As an unknown quantity without a track record we need to wait and see how Bolsonaro performs before coming to any conclusions about him. He has a three-month honeymoon period from his inauguration on January 1, 2019 till March when the carnival season gets over. After that it could be a rough ride as Brazilians are unlikely to wait too long if he cannot change the ‘more of the same’ dynamic.

India would do well to send its Foreign Minister to attend Bolsonaro’s inauguration on January 1, with a substantive agenda to reset India-Brazil relations. Sending a junior minister will not achieve the same purpose as Brazilians are highly protocol-conscious. Both countries stand to gain by reaching out to each other and actualizing mutually beneficial quid pro quo deals that open economic opportunities. Getting aircraft maker Embraer to make in India while contributing meaningfully towards ship construction in Brazil is one such.

(Sunil Lal was India’s Ambassador to Brazil from 2014 to 2017. Views are personal)