As a transformative figure in Brazil, former President Lula’s reengagement with India recognises a shared belief in inclusive growth for countries with big development challenges

Former President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as “Lula,” returns to India today to receive the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development. He has been in India twice as President in the last decade and is credited as the Brazilian most responsible for elevating the India-Brazil relationship to a qualitatively higher level. His selection for the prize in 2010, during the last year of his presidency, was a fitting gesture considering his stature in Brazil, his profile as a global statesman and in recognition of his role in bringing our two countries closer.

Fate intervened, however, when Lula was preparing to come in November 2011 to accept the award. He was diagnosed with throat cancer shortly before his intended visit. A passionate speaker, he was told by his doctors to stay silent. He began his chemotherapy and temporarily his voice and his other characteristic feature, a thick unkempt beard. Now, he has recovered fully and is back in public life. As the Indian Ambassador, I was delighted to get the news from his office of his keenness to travel to India to receive the honour.

Three point change

Lula is a transformative figure in Brazilian society and is the most popular Brazilian public figure hitherto. There are at least three distinctive ways in which he changed the nature of Brazilian politics:

First, in all of Brazil’s history he is the first common man to ascend to the status of President. Before him Brazilian leaders came from the military, or during democratic periods, from privileged families or aristocratic elites. In contrast, Lula came from an impoverished background, a broken home in a backward region. He is virtually self-taught, not having studied beyond school. He started as a factory worker and his biography invariably refers to his losing a finger while working on a lathe machine in an automobile factory. Later, he became a trade union leader and subsequently founded the Workers’ Party, which came to power with his election as President in 2002. He is thus entitled to joke as he once did during a G-20 meeting that “we are all talking of hunger. Perhaps in this gathering, I am the only one who has experienced it!”

Having fought unbridled capitalism all his life, Lula became a pragmatic leader as President. Fears about nationalisation or the flight of capital soon dissipated and sensible economic policies with an emphasis on poverty reduction were adopted. By the end of his term, Lula’s popularity was soaring, with an approval rating of roughly 80 per cent. Today his political legacy is that of having brought the neglected and unrepresented classes in Brazil to the forefront of a vibrant and stable democracy.

Second is Lula’s impact on the socio-economic transformation of his country. With its abundant natural resources of every kind — land, water, agriculture, minerals, and oil — Brazil has always been prosperous. But the disparities and inequities have been staggering, in terms of both regions and individuals. Much like in India, there are large States in the north or north-east which have lagged behind and are vastly backward compared to the industrial areas of Sao Paulo or Rio. Again, like in India, there are the super rich with control of vast tracts of land or industry and the impoverished in urban slums or remote rural regions. There is also significant ethnic and racial diversity with a large segment of the population with African ancestry. The transformative aspect of the Workers’ Party and Lula has been to design and implement policies for effective intervention to help the disadvantaged. Brazil’s now-famous social welfare programmes such as Bolsa familia (family benefit package) had started even before Lula, but were consolidated and expanded during his period. The result has been one of world’s most successful conditional cash transfer programmes that have resulted in “zero hunger” and a reduction in the level of destitute poverty to less than five per cent. Corollaries are near-universal education and better health for all. The current President Dilma Rousseff proudly declares that her aim is to make Brazil a country of the middle class, a realistic goal.

Third, Lula also changed the orientation of Brazil’s external engagement. Brazil is fortunate to live in a benign security environment in South America, this being a major difference between Brazil and India, otherwise similar in so many ways.

Brazil’s traditional priority and interest has been in Europe, countries like France, Italy, and Spain — apart from the neighbourhood. Lula has a world view of solidarity and empathy with the developing countries. He is conscious of Brazil’s historical connection with Africa and initiated energetic exchanges with countries of that continent. He also intensified dialogue with large emerging economies like India and China and was an enthusiastic supporter of new plurilateral groupings such as IBSA and Brics. In the last 10 years, Brazil thus raised its profile as a global player and became an aspirant for a place in an expanded U.N. Security Council.

The commonalties and convergences between India and Brazil would be discernible from the account above. For an observer like me, the key to the personal friendship and chemistry between Lula and India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — one a trade union fighter and an exuberant extrovert, the other an erudite economist and a quiet intellectual — is simple: a belief in inclusive growth for countries with huge social challenges.

What of Lula now? It is a tribute to Brazilian democracy and also to Lula that he stepped down readily at the end of his two-term presidency of eight years. Dilma, his erstwhile protégé and current President is a very different person, even while having an excellent relationship with Lula. She is a no-nonsense, tough manager with a focus on the economy. Whether Lula will return to active politics is a question perennially discussed in Brazil. The political sport will also depend on the success or otherwise in another big sport, the hosting of the FIFA World Cup by Brazil in 2014.

(B.S. Prakash was India’s Ambassador in Brazil till recently and is a regular contributor to Gateway House.)

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