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Brazil's unusual protests -- and larger lessons from it

June 21, 2013 11:37 IST

An objective observer can indeed see the improvement in all the social parameters in Brazil, but for the citizen the state of infrastructure, public transport, education and health is dissatisfying. Some of that pent-up frustration has led to the current protest, says B S Prakash

Brazilians do not protest. This is the conclusion that I had come to after spending four years in that country as the Indian ambassador till recently. No matter what the provocation -- inordinate delays at the airport, evidence of rampant corruption in their politicians, shocking nepotism in appointments -- the Brazilians seemed to forgive and forget and demonstrate extraordinary tolerance. Many of their socio-political problems are similar to ours, but the public attitude was of much greater acceptance. So it seemed.

Hence the recent protests across Brazilian cities involving hundreds of thousands on the streets of Sao Paulo is almost unprecedented. It has surprised Brazilians themselves as my friends there tell me. True to their character, the protests are not violent, though tear gas and rubber bullets have been used, unusual in that country. What lies behind this phenomenon and are there larger lessons for the so-called ‘emerging economies’, a label under which both India and Brazil are invariably linked?

A few factors have triggered the protests. The ostensible cause was a modest increase in the tickets for public transport in the mega city of Sao Paulo. But this price raise got linked to at least two other causes: revulsion against corruption by the political class and discontent over the huge expenditure in staging the FIFA world cup next year and thereafter the Olympics in 2016. At one level all these factors are symptomatic of the larger malaise in democracies that are still developing but are being hailed as ‘emerging powers’.

Brazil today is among the world's top 10 economies with a GDP of $ 2.5 billion. (Bigger than the Indian GDP, it has now overtaken the UK.)  Ordinary Brazilians are constantly told about how well their country has done in world rankings and in improving their conditions. Much of this is indeed true and yet the majority, especially the youth, fuelled in this aspiration mode feel that the talk of a rising Brazil is far from the reality of their own lives.

An objective observer can indeed see the improvement in all the social parameters, but for the citizen the state of infrastructure, public transport, education and health is dissatisfying. Some of that pent-up frustration has led to the current protest. Asked as to what they really expect from their leaders, one of the young demonstrators said simply on TV: ‘Only that they see our reality. Why should not the president come and travel with us on the metro in the streets of Sao Paulo, see how we live?’

Sentiments that we could express, too, except that we have given up a long time ago any such expectation of a citizen's experience being shared by the political elite.

Corruption and nepotism among the power brokers rankles too. Brazil may be no more or no less corrupt than other developing democracies -- India, South Africa, Indonesia -- but it has a long tradition of immunity for the political class from prosecution. Several layers of legal protection are available for the politicians. This has changed in the last few years and the current president, Dilma Roussef, is a strong anti-corruption crusader. But Brazilians long used to misuse of office by the political elite are now turning more critical, like the Anna Hazare followers.

All this interestingly gets linked to some misgivings about Brazil hosting the football world cup next year, followed by Olympics in 2016. Nothing is as sacred in Brazil as football and therefore hosting the world cup should be a matter of immense national pride. But with that pride and expectation one can also discern a sense of unease and weariness.

The fact of the matter is that big sports at the international level is tied up with big bucks, big business and pressure politics. FIFA, the body governing international football is no respecter of national constraints or sensitivities. Its aim is to make the games bigger and more lucrative to the extent of damaging host country finances. So is the Olympics committee as the Greeks can now tell us. We just need to remember our own recent experience of Commonwealth Games to realise how these mega sports events create a coterie of crooked politicos, corporate interests, and professional organisers indifferent to the realities outside the stadiums.

Just as the Commonwealth Games created a stink about the excess and the greed of the networked mafia which organised it, a section of Brazilians too are already worked up about the wisdom of hosting the events. The harsh reality is that it is one thing for a country like China or South Korea to proclaim its arrival as an emerging great power with events of this nature, but in countries with striking income disparities and infrastructural constraints, whether money spent on stadiums is wise is a legitimate question.  

How is the government handling all this? It must be remembered that Brazil since Lula  has a popular and somewhat left-leaning government led by leaders who themselves were agitators. Their response is unlikely to be authoritarian and will have to respond to the public perceptions. The democratic governments have a challenge to reconcile its international image and domestic reality and how it will do so in the coming months is worth watching.

Image: A demonstrator jumps over trash set afire during protests against poor public services, police violence and government corruption, in Sao Paulo, June 18, 2013. Photograph by Victor Moriyama, Reuters

B S Prakash is the former ambassador to Brazil and currently a visiting professor at Jamia Milia University

B S Prakash