Why India is keen to bond with Bolsonaro

When Bolsonaro was running for President, he had lashed out at China. However, within months of coming to power, he travelled to Beijing, signed a string of pacts and exempted Chinese nationals from visa requirements to visit Brazil. New Delhi expects that just as in Beijing, Bolsonaro will see India’s potential on his first visit.

Why India is keen to bond with Bolsonaro

Controversial: Brazil President Jair Messias Bolsonaro is often called the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ for being unpredictable.

KP Nayar

KP Nayar
Strategic Analyst

THERE are two reasons why Jair Messias Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, has been invited as the chief guest at the upcoming Republic Day. One, India’s once-thriving relations with Brazil hit a plateau after Dilma Rousseff replaced the charismatic Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, an acknowledged admirer of India, as Brazil’s President in 2011.

Bilateral engagement was reduced to platitudes and became perfunctory after Brazil was embroiled in domestic political crises leading to Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016. Vice-President Michel Temer, who became President, did not share Lula’s passion for engaging India, with predictable results.

The second reason for inviting Bolsonaro is that India and Brazil continue to be key ingredients in an alphabet soup of IBSA, BRICS, G-4, G-20 and many other multilateral platforms. Yet, this strength in plurilateral engagement was not matched by the substance of their bilateral relations. The hope within the Narendra Modi government is that by acknowledging Brazil’s special place on India’s horizon, bilateral ties, which once showed promise, can be revived.

Bolsonaro is often called the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ because, like the present occupant of the White House, Brazil’s equally controversial head of the state can be unpredictable and capricious. Bolsonaro is not seeking to triumph in any international popularity contest. His politically incorrect positions on the environment, his dismal record in deforestation of the Amazon and his cavalier attitude to rainforest fires have made him a man whom liberals all over the world love to hate, although he has been in office only for a year.

Soon after arriving in the United Arab Emirates on a state visit three months ago, Bolsonaro, sprang a surprise when he told the UAE’s national news agency, WAM, that Brazil should be “considered as an Arab country. We have more than five million people of Arab descent in our country,” which is more than the total population of some Arab nations.

“So now, we have come to the Arab world, starting in the UAE. This is the first time I am visiting an Arab country and I am treated very well.” Like Trump, whose reactions to situations are intensely personal rather than presidential, Bolsonaro continued: “Yesterday, when I went to a shopping mall in Abu Dhabi, some shoppers recognised me and I felt at home.”

When Bolsonaro was running for President, he railed at China. His most memorable criticism was that China was not just buying from Brazil, but buying Brazil itself. In what was meant to be a red rag aimed at Beijing, Bolsonaro visited Taipei and turned his back on China.

Within months of becoming the President, he travelled to Beijing and signed a string of agreements with China and exempted Chinese nationals from visa requirements to visit Brazil. In a complete turnaround last November, when Xi Jinping went on a return visit to Brasilia, the capital, Bolsonaro effusively received the Chinese President and announced that “China is an ever greater part of Brazil’s future.”

The expectation on Raisina Hill, the seat of power in New Delhi, is that just as in Abu Dhabi and Beijing, Bolsonaro will see the potential of India on his first visit. Policy-makers hope that he will be swept off his feet by India’s grand Republic Day parade — many world leaders have in the past been impressed — and that Bolsonaro will reinvigorate the bilateral relationship. If the Capital’s notorious China-baiters believe that Brazil can be counted on in any anti-China alliance that they are constantly fantasising, they will be sorely disappointed.

A dose of Brazil is just what India’s frayed polity needs. Brazil has a society whose mission is to have a good time and make the most of it even in adversity: this is true of all of South America, but more so in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and other fountainheads of fun and enjoyment.

If Bolsonaro’s programme is not all serious business and allows for public engagements such as when George W. Bush and Barack Obama were chief guests on January 26, it will provide a welcome diversion from the fraught nerves at all levels since the Citizenship Amendment Act shut the doors on amiability, especially among the political leaders of different persuasions.

The Brazilians turned protocol on its head when Manmohan Singh and other BRIC (it was BRIC then, without the ‘S’) leaders gathered at Brasilia’s famed Itamaraty Palace in April 2010 for the second such summit of leaders from Brazil, Russia, India and China. There was no sit- down banquet and President Lula pulled Singh and Hu Jintao, then Chinese President, by their arms towards a long buffet table where the leaders served themselves.

Such informality, Brazilian style, helped and several contentious issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme and the expansion of BRIC to include South Africa were handled in a spirit of cordiality.

Similarly, when Lula visited New Delhi in November 2012 as former President to receive the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize, the then Brazilian Ambassador to India hosted a dinner at his residence to celebrate the Award. In the middle of the function, Lula went missing. Those who searched for him looked everywhere except the place where he was eventually found: the Ambassador’s kitchen. There, he was found cosily chatting with the cooks and the envoy’s household staff, who were, of course, delighted by Lula’s unconventionality.

Brazilians also have a great sense of humour, which derives from their natural joie de vivre that Indians could emulate, especially in these troubled times. A memorable recent example was when huge deep sea reserves of oil were discovered by Petrobras, Brazil’s publicly held oil conglomerate.

The windfall discovery led to a popular saying that ‘God is Brazilian’. So, when Pope Francis, who is Argentinian by birth, began his papacy, it was added to that wisecrack that “the Pope may be Argentinian, but God is still Brazilian.” That is how Brazilians deal with their traditional and historical rivalry with Argentina, not with guns or abuse. There is much to learn from Brazil’s experience.

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