Friday 16 May 2014

BRICS coming of age (Pakistan Observer)

M D Nalapat

Friday, May 16, 2014 - SHOULD the opinion polls prove accurate, Narendra Damodardas Modi will take over as Prime Minister of India within a week. The 2014 campaign ought to have been conducted as a battle between Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Prime Ministerial nominee Narendra Modi, except for the fact that Rahul Gandhi has largely been Missing in Action (MIA). At a farewell dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hosted by his own mother, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, the 43-year old heir to the Congress leadership showed his contempt for Manmohan Singh by staying away. Some reports say that he was in Bangkok with three friends, two foreigners and a citizen of India. Others claim that he was in Istanbul, which seems to be among his most favourite cities, also in the company of a close friend.

According to friends, Rahul Gandhi left the same night that campaigning for the elections ended on May 10, to “rest and recuperate after a gruelling election schedule”. While he is certainly entitled to some rest, it seems a bit unfortunate that he has chosen to further humiliate a man who has served his mother with loyalty and with dedication for two decades. Coming to the incoming Prime Minister, an important item on his agenda will be the forthcoming BRICS summit in Brazil, which begins on June 15. The Manmohan Singh government, for reasons that are not clear, sought to postpone the conference by a month, that too at this late stage, but this request has been turned down as the leaders of Russia, China, South Africa and Brazil have already finalised their programs, and cannot be expected to change them for unexplained reasons simply because the External Affairs Ministry in South Block has asked them to.

Indeed, the very request is discourteous, to say the least, and ought to have been avoided. The External Affairs Ministry rationale is that the summit will take place when the monsoon session of Parliament of India is going on, but there have been multiple instances in the past when Prime Ministers travelled abroad despite Parliament being in session. Certainly the BRICS summit will provide an opportunity for the new Prime Minister to meet his counterparts from some of the world’s most consequential countries, and despite what the Ministry of External Affairs believes, it would be unwise to pass up such an opportunity to forge links with important world leaders En route, there is a possibility that the new PM will make a stopover. The chances are that this will be in Germany, which has emerged as the most consequential country in Europe.

The Angela Merkel administration has signalled clearly that it welcomes the chance to work with the new Prime Minister of India, especially in the fields of partnering in manufacturing and in vocational education. During the Nehru era, it was the UK that was the centre of gravity in Europe for India. When Atal Behari Vajpayee was the PM, that locus shifted to France, largely because of that country’s pragmatic acceptance of India’s nuclear weapons status after the 1998 Pokhran-II blasts, in contrast to the US, Austrialia and Canada, each of which sought to outdo the other in abuse of Delhi for its effrontery in carrying out the blasts. Should Narendra Modi become the PM, it is likely that Germany will be the main focus of attention in Europe, and not only because of the friendly gestures made by Berlin to him. It needs to be remembered that it was the German envoy to India, Michael Steiner, who hosted a five-hour long tea for Mr Modi with the other EU envoys.

Only the Ambassador of France stayed away from that meeting, to demonstrate the solidarity of Paris with Sonia Gandhi, who belongs to the same faith that most of the population of France subscribe to, which is Catholicism. At the BRICS summit, it is important that India put forward specific proposals that would take forward the development of BRICS into a full-fledged alliance system. The proposed BRICS bank needs to get speedily set up, as also a BRICS secretariat, perhaps in Durban, South Africa, being in a way geographically in between the other member-states.

The currencies of the BRICS countries need to be made freely convertible in each other’s territory, so as to carry forward the process of freeing these currencies from the dollar and the euro. The excessive dependence of the globe on these two currencies has exposed several major economies to huge risks, caused by defective economic policies in the US and the EU. There needs to be much more interaction between the BRICS powers, and a start would be to ensure visa-free access to each country within the group, so that millions from within the bloc could visit other states and thereby forge links and understanding. Education and healthcare, as also services, are other fields where greater coordination would boost each of the five member-states. The Brazil meeting of BRICS needs to initiate the start of a process of bringing the grouping into the 21st century and making it not simply a talking shop or an international photo opportunity, but a means towards faster growth for each of its members. BRICS needs to come of age, and the 2014 meeting needs to be the location where this takes effect.

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