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Can BRIC save the world?
January 12, 2009
The four of us, the designated 'distinguished' ambassadors of Brazil [Images], Russia [Images], India, and China (BRIC) seated on the stage at the plush auditorium in Rio de Janeiro squirmed in our seats and looked at each other with unease. In our profession, we are not in the business of sending resolutions except at the United Nations. The old gent was still looking at us expectantly. He proceeded to come up on the stage and give each of us a sheet of paper with his impassioned message.
I looked at it with curiosity but felt helpless. Of course, it was in Portuguese, a language that I am still struggling with, after three months in Brazil. Actually, even his outpouring earlier had been in Portuguese, but we did have simultaneous interpretation at this seminar on BRIC and so I had understood his point.
Before I come to it and his hopes for a solid foundation for... 'something,' let me set the scenario, as I saw it from the stage. I had received an invitation from Journal do Brazil, a major newspaper in Rio to give India's perspective on the new grouping of countries imaginatively titled BRIC.
The official representatives of the other three countries and selected journalists were also to participate. I had first felt reluctant, the tragedy that has affected us all, being uppermost in my thoughts and the idea of expounding on the Indian economy and so forth somehow seeming far removed from matters on my mind.
But I had agreed on second thoughts, telling myself that this was an essential part of my job, and that everybody ought to do his. Besides, I had thought, it will also give me an exposure to Brazilian thinking on this subject and perhaps an opportunity also to speak about India's challenges in these troubled times.
Being still new in the country, I was also curious about the seminar environment and ambience which is different in each country.
I now looked at the crowd in front of me. So different and yet in some ways so familiar to what I knew from India, say from a seminar on the same subject at the India International Centre in New Delhi [Images]. About 200 people. The first thing that struck me was the above universal-average good looks and good clothes of the audience. Brazil is a blessed place, beautiful and peaceful, the land and the people.
The majority in this audience of both genders: tall, athletic, and well proportioned. Men in dark suits, or if young, in well-cut jeans and smart white shirts, with Salman Khan [Images] muscles. Many with trimmed beards. And women, oh the famous women of Brazil, a large number looking like 'models,' long limbed and lissom, flashing eyes and fashionable attires. All together, a different visual from what one is accustomed to on seminar circuits either in India or America.
And yet the familiarities: here, two girls text messaging and giggling, a bored man in a cream summer suit dozing off in the front row, a bunch of T-shirt clad youngsters who are obviously here for the coffee and the free snacks and are looking at the foyer outside where these are being laid, a group of bespectacled researches religiously taking notes as we make our presentations, and the old man who had spoken earlier with his angry look.
I again looked at the paper which he had handed over. I could discern with some difficulty that he was imploring our four countries and Obama to do something. What it was, was difficult for me to guess, but he seemed to be a big BRIC believer.
I thought of my own research for the seminar.
BRIC was a concept dreamed up by a team of economists at Goldman Sachs in 2001. Currently, our belief in the vision and wisdom of experts from organisations like Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch has taken a beating and there is scepticism or even cynicism about the prognosis of such pundits.
But nevertheless those clever people had hit upon an idea of some importance. These four countries were all substantial in every sense of the term: Big in terms of size, large populations, huge domestic markets, a certain level of sophistication in S&T, sizable domestic industry and above all, an economic growth rate much higher than the global average.
If US and Europe were growing at a maximum of 3 per cent -- if they were growing at all, China and India were racing at above 8 per cent and Russia and Brazil also at a much higher rate than the West. Thus, the finding by the researchers that taken together these four countries represented 40 per cent of the global GDP. The current economic crisis would no doubt affect all the four countries differently, but these economies taken collectively were still crucial.
But as we had all noted in the seminar, apart from all the economic facts and figures, there was also a political and a structural dimension to BRIC. It represented a movement towards the recognition that new groupings and perspectives were emerging in the world, that these 'emerging economies' had their own weight and views, that the traditional G-7 had to make place for something larger and different.
At a fundamental level, it denoted that the world had to be viewed as multi-polar and not as either the earlier paradigm of 'bi-polar' during the Cold War years, or as uni-polar with the belief that Washington represented the centre of gravity of the Universe. All of us had duly noted that BRIC was not against any one, certainly not against the US, but was for something new that was emerging and demanded to be recognised.
Armed with all this, I was really curious to find out, what the sartorially elegant but somewhat angry old man was saying about us and in his appeal to Obama. I asked the organisers to interpret for me what he was demanding. They looked a little embarrassed but I persisted. 'He is saying that in the current financial crisis, the four countries, the four of you ambassadors should ask Obama, not to put missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic,' the interpreter told me.
Hmmm. What did this mean?
'It is a bit difficult to see the connections,' one of the organisers said helpfully.
"What does the Indian ambassador think?" the suited gent wanted to know.
'Well, we must first cement the BRIC,' I said with a convenient turn of phrase and also avoiding the politically loaded appeal. My remark did not seem to make any impression as the interpreter said blandly "Nos cementar e tijolo." I realised that brick and cement did not come together in the translation, the same way as in English.
'Please don't mind, he is a little confused and angry,' said someone helpfully.
'Oh, don't worry,' I said. 'I feel so much at home. No seminar in our countries can be complete without some anger and confusion.' All the smiling Brazilians around me happily agreed as we broke for coffee.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
B S Prakash is India's ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
B S Prakash
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