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Prime Minister Narendra Modi attending the 11th Brics summit in Brasilia, the Brazilian capital, on November 13-14 left most ordinary Indians foxed, and Delhi’s residents irate over a silent and missing leader as they were asphyxiating under a cloud of smog. This group initially comprised four emerging economic powers — Brazil, China, India and Russia — as originally envisioned by Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs in 2001 as the four most likely to influence the geo-economics of the early 21st century. South Africa was added, mostly at China’s insistence, in 2011, turning “Bric” into “Brics”. However, in recent years, Jim O’Neill and others like S&P Global Ratings have noted that the group has lost relevance over the diverging long-term growth trajectories of its members. The latest summit has to be viewed against this background.
India’s external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, delivering the Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture in New Delhi as Mr Modi attended the summit, expounding on the Modi government’s arch-realistic foreign policy of multi-alignment, said India sought to “fashion Brics into a major forum”. But his remark ignores that the orientation and internal dynamics of the five members has not remained a constant since its founding. South Africa has still not recovered from the decade-long misrule of former President Jacob Zuma, which ended with his recall in early 2018. Its GDP growth slowed from 1.3 per cent in 2017 to an estimated 0.7 per cent in 2018. It is expected to rise to 1.5 per cent this year. Part of the problem has been the slowdown of the Chinese economy and the resultant effect on both South Africa and Brazil as nations dependent on exporting commodities. Brazil saw the jailing of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose socialistic politics and presidency (2003-2010) saw Brazil’s active participation in the creation and nursing of Brics. Brazil also joined India, Japan and Germany in another group called G-4 to seek reform of the UN Security Council and the inclusion of these four nations as permanent members. The election of Jair Bolsonaro, a former middle-level military officer, has swung Brazilian foreign policy and domestic discourse way to the right. US President Donald Trump is the role model for Mr Bolsonaro. He even talked of a military base for the United States, which ironically, in a nation which saw decades of military rule, was overruled by the Brazilian military. In a role reversal, the diplomats and the Brazilian military are trying to contain the over-enthusiasm of their President for seeking almost an alliance with the US. Inviting Mr Bolsonaro as chief guest at next year’s Republic Day would not send a great signal to the other nations in Latin America that are wrestling with anti-democratic forces. Alberto Fernandez, the newly-elected Peronist President of Argentina, a nation that considers itself, besides Mexico, as Brazil’s rival in South America, was not even congratulated by Mr Bolsonaro.