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How BRICS Is Expanded Is Crucial

By SHYAM G MENON
June 25, 2022 10:32 IST
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With its political colour dominated by less than democratic trends, BRICS currently leaves some of us wondering -- where in this grouping is there an assurance that human freedom will be respected unconditionally?
It would be nice to see the new members of BRICS drawn from the ranks of countries wedded to preserving and guarding human freedom, observes Shyam G Menon.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi and other BRICS leaders at the virtual BRICS summit, June 23, 2022. Photograph: Press Information Bureau
 

Years ago, my introduction to the larger world was through a small library of books built up by a learned uncle.

When he returned from the US following a stint in higher studies, he shipped home a collection of books that included several volumes of a TIME-LIFE series covering many countries.

Filled with fantastic photographs, it was an excellent window to the outside world for a curious schoolboy.

The volume on Japan with its pictures of traditional customs, Sumo wrestlers, industrialisation, automobile factories, Mount Fujiyama and Tokyo was among favorites.

One of the pictures that stuck in mind was the photo of peak hour travel on a Tokyo train.

The crammed train compartment and photographs documenting the life of the working man, was the first insight I had into what would eventually be an Asian epidemic -- the unsaid human exhaustion that accompanies modern paradigms of economic development.

At that time, it was Japan that produced the overworked employee.

In subsequent years, the specter of exhaustion spread to South Korea, the next Asian economic miracle.

In the brief period of ascent associated with South East Asian economies, the high fashion of the exhausted human worker (still typically male) was among call signs of the Asian Tigers.

Eventually, that giant of a dragon stirred awake.

China became the new destination of aggressive GDP growth.

It was only a matter of time before the caravan reached India.

We now live in the trillion dollar GDP league.

Alongside, we are also rich on stress, our lives sacrificed at the altar of pursuits whose merits are explicable only in terms of money.

Many ways to trivialise freedom

Recently, China made it known that the BRICS alliance would be expanded to include more countries.

While it may be a mind trained in economics that detected the potential of BRICS years ago, the simple truth is -- economics is not everything.

Blame it on ignorance, an excess of emotion or plain incorrect wiring of the brain (in days of fascism and majoritarianism, one's neural networks are also not spared blame), some of us value freedom (and not organisation) as the most central thing to existence.

We are not overtly enamored by GDP and corporates much the same way we are not bowled over by other forms of regimentation.

Uniquely, freedom is a subject that divides people nowadays.

For instance, there are those in India, who perceive freedom strictly as something we fought for and wrested back from the British.

They assume the India before British rule as implicitly free, with subservience to kings and emperors of native origin as part of the deal called life.

In the same vein, they see blind compliance with the compulsions of modern industry as a necessary sacrifice for GDP and compliance with regimentation as a necessary prerequisite for being superpower.

There are others who sense their freedom more personally, more viscerally -- perhaps in a manner that is similar to what every person feels when located in vast geography (the sea, mountains or deserts); you sense space, mobility in all directions and potential to explore.

For them, a chieftain or king telling them what to do, setting limits -- even if such structure be what societies are all about -- is bothersome and contrary to the lay of the universe.

They comply with the necessities of human society, reluctantly, remorsefully.

As long as we don't hurt each other, all these degrees of freedom may be harbored harmoniously side by side.

In contrast, in the second half of the twentieth century when the approaching Asian century, replete with significant regional economic growth, was first spoken of, the focus was purely on GDP.

The Asian century's claim to fame, in fact, revolves around prospective economic growth and market size.

The nature and quality of Asia's politics, how it defines human life - that was never part of the equation celebrating the new era.

Today, notwithstanding the claimed stress-busting capacity of the Indian mind through yoga, meditation, family and such, we have moments, sometimes phases, which hark of the fatigued Japanese and Koreans.

This may be dismissed as a marginal detail; an essential sacrifice in service of trillion dollar GDP.

What worries however, are two related factors.

First, by nature, money is a narcotic that trivialises freedom.

It is very easy to conclude that a lifetime's work manifested eventually as a fantastic bank account condones the marginalization of freedom that happened in the interim.

A socio-economic arrangement dominated by companies won't bat an eyelid to permit rule by such an outlook.

Already in India, freedom has become something we earn through money; it is no more regarded as the universal value we are born into.

It is even viewed as an avoidable thorn in the side of GDP and superpower.

Simply put, among the junctures in which, the human being elects to define freedom, contexts high on money and power are not ideal for the job.

Second, as a matter of tradition, Asian countries have been more partial towards kingdom and empire than freedom and elected governments.

This has always been the worrying underbelly of the Asian century.

Courtesy rising GDP and its status as home to a big chunk of humanity, Asia may enjoy a prominent say in world affairs.

But how naturally supportive is it, how naturally supportive will it be - of freedom?

In our own neighborhood of South Asia, do we have sufficient evidence of popular appreciation for freedom?

The BRICS family portrait

The question reverberates in every molecule of photos depicting the leaders of the BRICS countries standing together.

There is the leader of China -- arguably the world's biggest economy and at the same time, a State ruled for decades by a single party; there is the leader of Brazil, whose controversial policies were debated worldwide during the pandemic, there is the leader of Russia -- described for long as a strongman and by the first half of 2022 engaged in a senseless war in Ukraine, there is the leader of India about whom I won't say anything and there is the leader of South Africa, who has his own share of allegations back home to battle.

Since 2009, when BRICS was formed, the changed politics of India and Brazil are among major shifts within the group that an onlooker would recollect.

With its political colour dominated by less than democratic trends, BRICS currently leaves some of us wondering -- where in this grouping is there an assurance that human freedom will be respected unconditionally, that it won't be surrendered to the compulsions of larger political or business ambitions?

The point is not that we require to accommodate anarchy (which, political and business lobbies are quick to accuse the freedom lobby of inspiring); it is quite simply that those valuing freedom appreciate seeing it firmly enshrined as a value every country stands by.

Viewed so, expanding BRICS is fine, even recommended; how that is done is equally crucial.

At various stages of its evolution to date, BRICS has hosted comments seeking alternatives to the prevailing norm.

For example, long before the Ukraine war saw Russia seeking an alternative to the US dollar's dominance in world trade, there have been traces of that view in past news reports about BRICS.

By itself, such experiments are not wrong.

But it is imperative that an alternative come from a political grouping that is committed to freedom and democracy.

It would be nice to see the new members of BRICS drawn from the ranks of countries wedded to preserving and guarding human freedom.

Freedom as defined by companies and autocratic governments is a poor version of freedom.

If this isn't the approach, then, just as social media merely intensified the chatter around us into full blown clamour with little room for remedy, we may be saddled with a predicament of freedom trivialised and worse, a situation we may find tough to reverse for it will be backed by the power and mutual concurrence of some of the world's biggest economies.

Let's not forget -- it is the natural tendency of our species to trade freedom for influence and power. Imagining otherwise is an acquired trait.

Shyam G Menon is a Mumbai-based columnist.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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