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Why football mirrors Modi’s style
Brazil and us, like & unlike

Mention Brazil these days and all one thinks of are goals. As the excitement reached a crescendo for the final, the Brazilians strove to come out of their despair after the crushing loss to Germany, and the goals scored or missed got debated by football lovers all over the world, Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on his long journey to Brazil.

I do not know whether Modi is a football fan. It is possible that he likes it: it is a game with energy, pace, action and clear results — all features that go with his style and personality.

We know by now that the Prime Minister prefers to set clear goals and works towards them. We saw this approach already when he visited Bhutan with an economic agenda in addition to the traditional cordiality. We saw it again in the postponement of his visit to Japan on the ground that there will be a clearer agenda after the budget.

So, what are the goals for Modi as he heads to Fortaleza on the northeastern coast of Brazil — as distant from India as can be — to attend the BRICS summit being held in that city on July 15? As a former ambassador to Brazil, having spent four years there, with the experience of several Indian VVIP visits to that country, and having seen BRICS summits, here are my thoughts.

First, let us note that the real goalposts at the famous Maracana stadium in Rio would just have been dismantled as the Prime Minister reaches another part of that vast country. The nearly 200 million Brazilians will just be recovering from their excesses of football and alcohol hangover.

Not the poor protocol guys, though, who will be getting ready to receive VVIPs. Why organise a summit of five major leaders — of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa that constitute BRICS — a mere two days after a momentous sporting event?

A good question. It is not an accident. Apparently, Chinese President Xi Jinping was keen to see the final and perhaps so was Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The President of the host country, Dilma Rousseff, is contesting elections in October; India had elections in May; and all this juggling of the timelines of heads of government has resulted in the dates for the summit.

What can Modi expect at BRICS and Brazil?

The most substantive aspect of the trip, in my view, will be the one-on-one meetings that the Prime Minister will have with the other BRICS leaders. All of them, the Presidents of China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa, are important in the world and important for us.

Modi will be meeting them for the first time and in a less demanding schedule than in the other large gatherings like the UN or the G20 that will come later this year.

The get-to-know meetings in a relatively relaxed ambience are a big plus. In a sense, it is akin to what the Prime Minister himself did at his inaugural by creating an opportunity to get to know all the Saarc leaders. This time, it will be the key leaders from the “rest of the world excluding the West”, as analysts characterise this grouping.

The symbolism and salience of the BRICS countries are not in doubt even if specifics in intra-BRICS cooperation are slow to mature. In terms of the measurable parameters of nations — geographical area, population, GDP, rate of economic growth, foreign exchange reserves — the BRICS countries are collectively a major factor in international affairs, and it is useful for India to advance its profile.

In fashioning what is being termed a multi-polar, post-western world order, BRICS is a key platform and the advancement of the idea itself is a goal.

For someone like our Prime Minister who may be looking for concrete results, the finalisation of the BRICS bank, were that to come about, should be a matter of satisfaction. There are elements that are works in progress: a networking of research institutions, and cooperation in urban management and others. These are evolving but slowly: shall we say that the pace is that of cricket rather than football?

Then, there is Brazil itself, the host country.

The commonalities between India and Brazil are extraordinary — large, populous, vociferous democracies, two-trillion-dollar-plus economies but with huge regional and income disparities, remarkable ethnic and cultural diversity, some impressive sectoral achievements and enormous challenges.

The list can go on. If we are interested in comparing notes with another developing country that has had success in poverty reduction and improvements in literacy and health — and all this within the constraints of a noisy democratic process — Brazil is the best case study.

The bilateral agenda is ambitious and has made some progress but the pace has been slow. It is possible that Modi may come back with some ideas on how to give it momentum, if there is a corresponding interest on the Brazilian side.

Visits to summits and exotic destinations are not all about substance; style also makes stories. Some memories and reflections on this aspect:

I saw at close quarters two visits by an Indian Prime Minister to Brazil and visits by two Brazilian Presidents to India.

What struck me, above all, was the contrasts in attitudes, the bandobast, and such like. In India, we tend to endlessly draw up and revise — minute to minute — the programmes, bring in hundreds if not thousands of policemen to line the streets, hold up normal traffic and worry ourselves to death lest a visiting guest be delayed or inconvenienced.

Indian weddings may be chaotic but the events run by the Republic are very pukka. In Brazil, I saw a much more laidback, relaxed and, should I dare say, chalta hai approach. Two examples are illustrative.

When I went to the airport in Delhi for the reception of the Brazilian President, there must have been a few hundred people milling around the VIP area, not to count the innumerable security personnel. In comparison, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived at the airport in Brasilia, there were not even 50 people.

Second, during the lunch hosted by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for the leaders of India, China and Russia, I saw him get up, put his arm around our Prime Minister, tell the leaders “Let us help ourselves to lunch” and lead them to a buffet in his disarming manner.

No buttoned-up banquets with turbaned and liveried waiters hovering behind each seat. It is pure speculation on my part but it is possible that Modi may discern in Brazil a different style in conducting the affairs of the state.

Finally, BRICS is a good place to understand the rich potential and yet the inescapable limitations of any multilateral process; the emphasis on words and not just the results; and working with others, all sovereign equals, but slowly and incrementally.