Why Brazil Matters

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When Brazil elects President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's successor on October 3, analysts around the world will wonder how Brazil will act without the man who has participated in every direct presidential election since democratisation in the late-1980s. While Lula turned president only in his fourth attempt in 2002, he shaped Brazilian politics like no other in recent decades.

Lula was also one of the major proponents of stronger Brazilian-Indian ties. In 2003, in his inauguration speech, he was the first Brazilian president to call India "a priority" for Brazil's foreign policy. In India, by contrast, interest in the South American giant, soon to be the fifth largest economy on earth, remains strangely low. Despite the large geographic distance, Brazil has strategic significance and a strong alliance could be highly beneficial for India. The Indian government must therefore use the transition of power in Brazil as an opportunity to strengthen ties with Brazil's new leader and forge a lasting alliance.

It is often forgotten that Brazil and India share, albeit indirectly, a long history. In 1500, Pedro Alvares Cabral landed in Brazil, which would become an important Portuguese colony and stopover on the way to Goa. This indirect connection through Portugal allowed an exchange of plants between India and Brazil early on. The coconut and mango, both from India, were introduced in Brazil, and manioc and cashew from Brazil were planted in India. Furthermore, most of the cattle in Brazil today are of Indian origin.

After India gained independence, commercial ties remained very low, and no single trade agreement existed between the two countries until 1963. What shaped the following two decades was the diplomatic tensions caused by the decolonisation process of Goa, the Portuguese enclave in India. Brazil was historically close to Portugal, and until 1961 supported Portugal in its quest to keep Goa, a strategy condemned by the Indian government.

Brazil and India were able to improve relations after that, and the two countries often aligned during the Cold War in multilateral institutions such as UNCTAD and the G77. After the Cold War, India and Brazil opened up economically and sought rapprochement, which culminated in 2003, when Brazil and India jointly led the developing world during the trade negotiations in Cancun, and when IBSA, a trilateral alliance with South Africa, was created. A year later, Brazil and India formed part of the G4 (consisting of India, Brazil, Japan and Germany) which sought to enter the UN Security Council as permanent members.

Of course Brazilian-Indian ties are, due to the geographic distance, unlikely to reach the importance of India's relations with Russia or China. Expectations should therefore be managed carefully. But there are three areas where Brazil and India can engage meaningfully: the defence of democratic institutions and human rights in the developing world, the quest for economic development and the reform of global governance. Close ties would be mutually beneficial and help Brazil and India address these challenges.

Brazil and India are the two principal emerging powers whose citizens enjoy a human rights-abiding liberal democratic system. Both countries have been able to maintain such institutions and rights despite highly diverse populations, a lack of social inclusion and high rates of poverty. In a world where an increasing number of national leaders look to China as an economic and political model to copy, India and Brazil provide powerful counter-examples that political freedom is no obstacle to economic growth. Both countries must make use of their legitimacy more frequently, for example, by jointly calling on Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe to respect the unity government with Morgan Tsvangirai.

Secondly, India and Brazil share similar challenges in their respective projects to promote economic growth and lift millions of citizens out of poverty. Each country has a great amount of experience and can provide useful advice to the other side. IBSA has been a step in the right direction to institutionalise such knowledge-sharing, but more can be done. Brazil's knowledge in agriculture is sorely needed in India, while India can provide software expertise to Brazil. Other areas where the two can collaborate meaningfully is the combat against HIV/AIDS, cash-transfer programmes to combat poverty and ways to foster social mobility and women's rights. More platforms need to be created for both countries' civil societies to engage more frequently.

Finally, Brazil and India need to continue to forge a strong partnership in their quest to reform global governance and assure that today's international institutions adequately reflect the recent changes in the distribution of power. While progress with the World Bank and the IMF has been slow, Brazil and India have immensely benefited from coordinating their efforts. Any renewed attempt to enter the UN Security Council as permanent members should occur in unison and after careful joint deliberation.

Even if it will take time to implement the strategies named above, the potential mutual benefits of stronger ties between Brazil and India are too large to ignore.

The writer is visiting professor of international relations, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.