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Lula in la-la land

April 06, 2018 14:11 IST

'My enduring memory of Lula is personal,' says Ambassador B S Prakash, our former envoy in Brazil.
'He was visiting India after retirement to accept an award.'
'At a private dinner in the Brazilian ambassador's residence, where I too was present, he was missing at the end of the evening.'
'We all went looking for him in the sprawling house to find him eventually in the kitchen talking happily to the cooks and servers.'
'He was thanking them for the excellent meal and service!'

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at a rally in Santana do Livramento, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil, March 19, 2018. Photograph: Diego Vara/Reuters
IMAGE: Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at a rally in Santana do Livramento, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil, March 19, 2018. Photograph: Diego Vara/Reuters

What is common between Salman Khan and Lula da Silva?

A silly quiz question? A stupid tweet, maybe.

But on April 5, there was an answer. Both were hit that day by the inexorable force of the law, whose wheels not only turn slowly, but turn in unexpected directions!

The newscasters announced that one of the world's highest paid actors was sent to Jodhpur jail in a trial after 20 years and that one of the world's most popular politicians, former Brazilian president Lula was to be sent to prison after a trial lasting years.

I do not follow Bollywood closely and am no fan of Salman Khan, a serial offender in my non-fan like view. However, I followed Lula closely, as the Indian ambassador to Brazil for four years, and met him on occasions, personally and professionally.

I am a distant fan and his current travails and uncertain fate raise troubling questions.

But, first, why 'la-la land', a happy image? Though commonly used for Los Angeles, the actual meaning of the phrase is 'surreal', a state of mind where a person is not aware of what is happening in reality.

Lula and his supporters must be in such a state at present.

 

Lula may now be prison bound, but became a public legend.

He was president of Brazil for two terms from 2003 to 2013 and when I reached that country in 2008 was at the height of his power, domestic popularity and international prestige.

In a nation that had been ruled by the military or the entrenched traditional elite, he had risen from being a metal worker and galvanised the poor and the working class.

There was initially a fear that as president, he would become a committed leftist, a milder version of Cuba's Castro and would nationalise Brazil's industries or squander its riches.

Instead, he became a pragmatic left-of-the centre moderate, rose to be a statesman and above all, came to be credited for lifting almost 30 million Brazilians out of poverty.

Brazil is blessed with natural resources: Water, agriculture, minerals and petroleum.

The commodity boom in the 1980s helped Brazil become a great success story. High rates of economic growth, abundant foreign exchange reserves, attractive destination for foreign investments, spending on social sectors and welfarist orientation: Brazil's model was similar to that of India under UPA-1.

We were together recognised as 'emerging economies' and worked together in groups such as IBSA, BRICS and the G-20.

By the time, Lula's term was to end in 2012, his popularity ratings were above 70%.

Despite some urgings from his supporters, he left office respecting democratic norms. 'More Mandela than Putin' was what his admirers said about he leaving office.

My enduring memory of Lula is personal. He was visiting India after retirement to accept an award. At a private dinner in the Brazilian ambassador's residence, where I too was present, he was missing at the end of the evening.

We all went looking for him in the sprawling house to find him eventually in the kitchen talking happily to the cooks and servers.

He was thanking them for the excellent meal and service!

'God is Brazilian,' Lula had declared euphorically, buoyed by Brazil's fortunes and after discovery of oil reserves in the deep sea.

Brazil was awarded the hosting of the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 and it seemed as if everything was going for the country.

Instead, it was as if the Gods started frowning on Brazil.

Dlima Rousseff, Lula's chosen successor as president, was politically inept.

Brazil's politics is akin to ours: Coalition governments, networks of patronage and nepotism, powerful regional satraps, and a process of incessant wheeling and dealing.

Lula was a master at all this and it never dented his popularity.

In no time at all, Dilma became isolated and antagonised influential parliamentarians.

With a long and tortuous process, she came to be impeached in 2016 on the grounds of what was essentially an accounting fix, to mask the budget deficit.

Not a grave offence in a commonsensical judgment, but constitutionally flawed.

At the same time, a scandal which has come to be known as 'lava jato ( ar wash) was unravelling from 2014. Why 'car wash'?

One reason was that the first investigations were carried out in an automatic car wash where the money laundering operations were regularly carried out.

Another more popular version is because like a powerful shower when a car gets comprehensively cleaned, everyone in Brazil's establishment is getting drenched.

Petrobras, Brazil's national oil company, is a colossal corporate that awards huge construction and maintenance contracts to private companies.

It came out that to win, contractors were forced to offer huge pay offs to Petrobras.

In a structured way the bribes reached not only Petrobras management, but senior politicians as well.

What is perhaps different in Brazil is the role played by a very aggressive and effective prosecutorial authority that is independent of the executive.

Not only the judiciary, but the prosecutors under it can be on auto-pilot.

In the last four years, it has been demonstrated that almost all political figures, transcending parties, posts and high offices have been beneficiaries of a well-oiled and extensive system of largesse.

This includes previous presidents, the current interim president, the speaker and more than half the legislature.

In Lula's case, he has been convicted of accepting a luxurious holiday home on the coast.

The conviction has been upheld by a higher court and the cumulative effect is that he will go to prison this week.

Can independent bureaucrats be so powerful, ignoring the executive and parliament? Think of the power wielded by T N Seshan as chief election commissioner or Vinod Rai as CAG and the impact of their decisions.

In a larger framework, a piquant situation has now developed.

Brazil faces presidential elections in October and Lula is the most popular candidate representing the Workers Party.

It is widely expected that he can win the elections, if he is allowed to contest. However, his conviction may disqualify him from contesting, much like what has happened to Lalu Yadav in our set up.

Whatever may be the charges, there is tremendous popular support and sympathy for Lula.

'I did not accept military rule all my life; I will not accept prosecutorial rule,' Lula declared. An interesting comparison.

His supporters argue that the 'rule of law' does not mean 'rule by lawyers'.

Currently, the legal process has overwhelmed politics.

The time is coming to re-examine the fundamentals including the principle of separation of powers in a democracy.

B S Prakash is a former Ambassador to Brazil. He is a long-standing Rediff.com columnist whose columns may be seen here.

B S Prakash