India & Brazil: Allies in arms

Print edition : February 28, 2020

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during a reception organised on Republic Day at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Photo: PTI

At a protest against Bolsonaro’s visit in Mumbai on January 25. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Under Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s right-wing dispensation seeks to forge strategic ties with India and expand trade, particularly in defence.

JAIR BOLSONARO, the right-wing President of Brazil, was the chief guest for this year’s Republic Day celebrations in India. The government had originally hoped for the presence of United States President Donald Trump on the occasion. When the U.S. cited scheduling problems, the government found a suitable alternative in Bolsonaro, also known as the “Trump of the Tropics”. Both Trump and Bolsonaro are well known for their extreme positions on emotive issues relating to race, religion, sex and the environment. Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the Brazilian President as a “dear friend” and said that the two countries “are realising a strategic partnership based on a similar ideology and similar values”.

Bolsonaro arrived in India with a big delegation of Ministers and businessmen, including CEOs of Brazilian arms manufacturers. Some 15 agreements were signed between the two countries covering trade, defence and other areas. The two governments have pledged to double bilateral trade in the next three years from the current $7 billion to $25 billion. Brazil is the 10th biggest importer of Indian goods.

India has agreed to buy more oil from Brazil to reduce the dependence on Venezuelan oil imports. The two countries have also signed agreements for the production of ethanol and biogas to boost the clean energy sector. Sugar cane is an essential component in the production of ethanol. Brazil has a lot of expertise in the production of ethanol, and India is a major producer of sugar cane.

The Trump administration is putting pressure on the Indian government to fully adhere to the rigorous sanctions it has imposed on Venezuela. The Indian government has already completely stopped buying oil from Iran, obeying the diktats from the U.S.

India and Brazil are touted as the two “emerging economies” that will follow in the footsteps of China. The U.S. is banking on the governments in New Delhi and Brasilia to provide a counterweight to China’s growing international influence. India is cooperating closely with the U.S. to block China’s rise.

Brazil under Bolsonaro is also expected to play a similar role. When he was campaigning for President, Bolsonaro took a strong stance against China, but after coming to power he has so far proceeded with caution. China is Brazil’s biggest trading partner. Brazil’s agricultural sector is very much dependent on sales to China.

U.S. ally

However, Brazil under Bolsonaro has also become the U.S.’ strongest ally in Latin America. Bolsonaro has even expressed a desire for Brazil to become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. He has supported talk of a U.S.-backed military invasion to effect regime change in Venezuela and backed the undemocratic ouster of President Evo Morales in Bolivia.

Bolsonaro has also been an outspoken critic of Cuba and is no friend of the Non-Aligned Movement. Unlike his immediate predecessors, he has no compunction about supporting the U.S.’ hegemonic policies in the region.

In a joint declaration issued during Bolsonaro’s visit to India, the two sides announced their commitment to forge a “stronger international partnership” to combat international terror and to cooperate against “specific terrorist threats identified by both countries”.

Both the governments have a similar world view. Bolsonaro has described the widespread social protests in his country as similar to “terrorist acts”. The Modi government has also adopted a strong position on the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), locking up several protesters under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

Information & Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar even called Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal “a terrorist” for supporting the anti-CAA protests.

Right-wing politicians in the Brazilian Congress are trying to pass a law that would put the terrorist tag on protesters. When protests broke out in Chile against the policies of that country’s right-wing government, Bolsonaro said that he would bring out the army if the Brazilian public tried to do the same.

Defence collaboration

One of the key goals of the new government in Brazil is to make the country a hub for the production of arms in collaboration with American companies. With India going on a shopping spree in the international arms bazaar, Brazil too wants a slice of the cake. It has targeted $1 billion in defence sales to India for the immediate future.

A strategic partnership agreement between the two countries was signed in 2006, but Brazilian arms manufacturers were unable to make a meaningful breakthrough in the Indian market.

Brazilian arms manufacturers have announced potential tie-ups with Indian private companies such as Jindal for the manufacture of small arms. Taurus, a Brazilian arms manufacturing company, has said that India will buy 500 million rifles from it in the coming five years.

India purchased civilian planes from the Brazilian aircraft company Embraer when the United Progressive Alliance government was in power. The Modi government has gone a step further and indicated its willingness to purchase military transport planes such as the C-390 Millennium tactical transport aircraft from the Brazilian aerospace giant.

Embraer stake sale

Embraer and Boeing, the biggest American aerospace company, formed a strategic partnership in February 2019 after Boeing agreed to acquire an 80 per cent stake in Embraer’s commercial aircraft division.

The Workers Party, Brazil’s main opposition party, had opposed the stake sale to the aerospace giant, arguing that the profitable airline division was being given on a platter to the Americans.

A Brazilian court temporarily stayed the merger between Embraer and Boeing. The Embraer workers’ union had also strongly opposed the proposal. After Bolsonaro assumed the presidency in January 2019, the government in Brasilia withdrew all the objections it had against the merger. A statement from his office said that the government had studied the proposal and “found that it preserves Brazil’s sovereignty and national interests”.

Through another joint venture, Boeing and Embraer plan to develop markets for Embraer’s C-390 Millennium, which they hope to sell to countries such as India.

Despite the evident bonhomie between Modi and Bolsonaro, the two sides could not resolve the lingering trade dispute around the export of Indian sugar. Brazil, along with countries such as Australia, has been complaining to the World Trade Organisation that India is glutting the global market with subsidised sugar.

Brazil and India are among the two leading sugar cane growers in the world. Indian sugar cane farmers’ associations had, in fact, protested against the Indian government extending an invitation to the Brazilian President to be the chief guest on the occasion of Republic Day.

Thousands of farmers, joined by students and others, staged a protest in New Delhi and other cities on January 25 against the visit of the Brazilian President. Under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil and India greatly strengthened their bilateral relationship. Lula, a socialist, was one of the architects of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping and is a great proponent of South-South cooperation. He was the chief guest at the Republic Day celebration in 2004.

Bolsonaro is the antithesis of all that Lula stood for during his two terms in office. He is among a handful of leaders who support Trump blindly. He even endorsed the Trump-sanctioned targeted killing of Iran’s Major General Qassem Soleimani, who had led the fight against the Islamic State in the region. Bolsonaro, a former military officer, is openly nostalgic about the brutal military dictatorship that ran Brazil for more than two decades.

Before the President’s state visit to India, the Brazilian government had brought criminal conspiracy charges against the investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, who had claimed that Bolsonaro won the 2018 presidential election through corrupt and unscrupulous ways. Greenwald, the founder of the Intercept news website and a leading figure in the Edward Snowden saga, had infuriated the Bolsonaro administration by releasing evidence that reportedly exposed the complicity of Justice Minister Sergio Moro in imprisoning Lula on trumped-up corruption charges.

Moro was the lead investigating prosecutor at the time. Lula was all set to run for the presidency and was leading in the polls. He was barred from contesting by the judicial system, which cleared the way for Bolsonaro’s eventual victory. Immediately after taking office, Bolsonaro appointed Moro Justice Minister.

The charges against Greenwald were framed even though the Federal Supreme Court judge Gilmar Mendes ruled that such a move “would constitute an unambiguous act of censorship”.

Bolsonaro has never hesitated from expressing his visceral contempt for the media. His government has been threatening to deport or jail Greenwald, a U.S. citizen who has been living in the country for almost two decades with his Brazilian partner.

“We will not be intimidated by these tyrannical attempts to silence journalists,” Intercept said in a statement. “There is no democracy without a free press, and defenders of the free press everywhere should be deeply concerned about Bolsonaro’s latest authoritarian move.”

In January, Brazil’s Culture Minister, Roberto Alvin, had to be removed from office after he delivered a speech strikingly similar to the one delivered by Joeseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, extolling the art produced by the Third Reich. Even right-wing parties supporting the government found the Minister’s speech unacceptable and demanded his resignation. Bolsonaro, who had initially praised the speech saying that the country now had “a real secretary of culture”, reluctantly asked him to leave.

The Bolsonaro administration has been trying to expunge all expressions of progressive art from the Brazilian cultural scene and promote a fundamentalist Christian ideology. Alvin is a “born again” Christian. The government has cut funds for the arts and cinema, which it blames for spreading “cultural Marxism”.