Legend has it that sometime in 1500, a Portuguese explorer, Pedro Alvares Cabral, landed on the Brazilian coast as he was on his way to India. Thereafter, ships sailing between Portugal and India, which would otherwise halt at East Africa, started stopping at Goa, the Portuguese colony on the Indian subcontinent, especially the ones blown off course.
More than 500 years after that happy accident of Cabral, Brazil President Jair Messias Bolsonaro is chief guest at India’s 70th Republic Day, the third time the head of the Latin American country will be gracing the occasion.
New Delhi weaves strategy with hospitality in handing out its most prestigious diplomatic invitation. With his racist and sexist remarks, Bolsonaro may have earned himself the nickname ‘Trump of the Tropics’ in his one-year tenure as President, but for India, a more interesting parallel is his image of an outsider among the country’s Leftist ruling elite.
Like Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign positing him against Lutyens Delhi, the politics of 64-year-old Bolsonaro, a former Army paratrooper who retired as Captain, has been portrayed as a counter to Brazil’s well-entrenched Leftist politicians caught in a string of corruption scandals, including the impeached Dilma Roussef and the jailed Lula da Silva.
It is this image that helped Bolsonaro to more than 55 per cent of the vote, with an electorate tired of political scandals, a four-year-old recession and an 11 per cent-plus unemployment voting overwhelmingly for him.
In hosting Bolsonaro, Delhi hopes to build on ties that began with Cabral, were sustained by a robust exchange of crops and cattle in the colonial era, but have somewhat tapered since.
In a paper for the New Delhi-based think tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, researcher Priya Saxena wrote: “Interestingly, the bovines in Brazil are of Indian origin. The ‘Ongole’ strain from Andhra Pradesh led to the production of the ‘Zebu’ (Bosindicus) variety known in Brazil as ‘Nelore’.This variety corresponds to 90 per cent of the cattle breed in Brazil. The fresh embryos are still imported from India to Brazil — the second biggest exporter of cattle beef in the world. The plants of coconut and mango, both from India, were introduced in Brazil, and Brazil’s manioc and cashew began to be planted in India.”
The first wrinkles appeared when Brazil took Portugal’s side on Goa, after India’s Independence. “Brazil changed course only in 1961, when it became increasingly clear that India would wrest control of Goa from an increasingly feeble Portugal,” said Oliver Stuenkel, Visiting Professor of International Relations, University of São Paulo (USP), Brazil, in a research paper on India-Brazil ties in the Indian Foreign Affairs’ Journal.
The two countries were on the same side on trade and non-proliferation in the 1960s, taking a stand against nuclear weapons and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1967. A year later, Indira Gandhi visited Brazil. The two countries also took similar positions during trade negotiations at GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade).
During the Cold War years though, Brazil was considered closer to the United States while India was seen as being in the Soviet corner. In the 1980s, Brazil ignored India’s feelers to join the Non-Aligned Movement.
The ties saw a revival after the end of the Cold War, when both countries unleashed economic reforms. In 1996, Brazil President Fernando Henrique Cardoso came as Republic Day chief guest, followed by a reciprocal visit by President K R Narayanan in 1998.
In his first Presidential speech in 2003, Lula (in power till 2010) declared India a “priority”. The year also saw the formation of IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa), and later, with Germany and Japan in it, the G-4 group. The G-4 group decided to make a determined push for permanent membership in the UN Security Council.
In 2004, the NDA government hosted Lula as R-Day chief guest.
However, just a year later, the bilateral ties hit a speed bump when the India-US nuclear deal was proposed. Brazil saw this as India going against its stance on nuclear weapons.
Still, Brazil and India came together in 2009 for the multilateral grouping BRIC, along with the other emerging economies of Russia and China. It was touted as the beginning of an alternative world order. In 2011, South Africa joined to make it more representative of the global south.
Saying India holds Brazil in great esteem, Secretary (East), Ministry of External Affairs, Vijay Thakur Singh told The Indian Express, “The relations are strong not only at the bilateral level but also at the plurilateral level. We coordinate in multilateral fora, particularly the UN.”
Brazil’s Ambassador to India Andre Correa de Lago said, “We speak a language other than the mainstream. Brazil and India are great supporters and defenders of democracy and all the major principles at the UN. But we still have challenges that most developed countries simply cannot understand. India and Brazil speak the same language.”
The Brazilian President also carries the weight of being the leader of a US $1.8 trillion economy, Latin
America’s largest. Brazil is also the largest country in the region, with a 210 million population, and is rich in natural resources. It is a leading producer of ethanol with a very strong track record in the technological field.
At US $8.2 billion, the current levels of trade between India and Brazil are lower than US $10.6 billion in 2012. The two sides are locked in a dispute over sugar subsidies. However, a new bilateral investment treaty is expected to ease these hitches. Defence cooperation is another agenda on the table.
Saying strategic, political and economic understanding are modest goals as Bolsonaro visits, Correa de Lago said, “We have a very good opinion of each other, but it is generally quite superficial. The relevance of our countries has changed a lot thanks to many achievements and our extraordinary societies… We are in the process of rediscovering each other. This meeting provides an opportunity for that rediscovery.”
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