The parallel between Jairam Ramesh’s remarks about Brazil and George Fernandes’s, two years ago, about China, is uncanny. Fernandes could survive such a colossal faux pas because he had votes — without his support in parliament, Vajpayee’s government would have collapsed. Because of our political vagaries, a South Indian from an upper caste has no leverage; so Jairam’s political weight cannot ensure his survival. For all his exterior mildness, the Prime Minister can be quite harsh with those that displease him; the fate of Mani Shankar Aiyar — and his only crime was to differ too publicly with Manmohan Singh — is salutary for all who dare cross his path. And yet, for the reasons I shall proceed to give, a punishment for Jairam would be undeserved and unfortunate.
Patricia Campos Mello did not know Jairam Ramesh. He was not her first choice for an interview; she, I am sure, would have preferred to interview the Prime Minister or, failing him, the minister of commerce. But she represented a newspaper, Estado de São Paulo, which was unheard of in India. Even a reporter from a well known newspaper like La Prensa would have found it impossible to penetrate the defences of our ministers. They have gatekeepers who jealously guard their control of access to their ministers, rewarding friends and benefactors and excluding the rest. There are reporters who asked a senior minister for an interview a year ago and have not heard from the gatekeeper since. A reporter of an unknown foreign newspaper could get access to a minister only by luck or accident. It happens that Jairam Ramesh is perhaps the most accessible minister. He takes it as his social function to educate and inform public opinion; and all his friends would admit that he does it very well — he is clear, eloquent, and often devastatingly witty. It is dangerous to be witty at the expense of the famous and the powerful, especially if they are one’s colleagues; that is all the more reason to admire someone who puts public duty before mealy-mouthed discretion. Anyway, it just happened that Campos Mello reached Jairam Ramesh, and not he her.
The first half of Campos Mello’s 600-word dispatch simply reported on Manmohan Singh’s forthcoming visit to Brazil — the industrialists he would take with him, the treaties he would sign, the business he would drum up for Ircon and Bharat Earth Movers, and so on. Then she went on briefly to quote Jairam Ramesh as saying: “The idea that India and Brazil are natural allies is a little ingenuous — we are competitors. We compete in manufactures, and have opposite interests in agriculture (Brazil is offensive, India is defensive), and on services, we want to open up more rapidly than Brazil. We do not expect that an accord between India, South Africa and Mercosur will lead to a big increase in trade, but we think it would be an important political manifesto.” For him, IBSA would be an important bloc of south-south cooperation like “non-alignment” at a different time, “but from an economic viewpoint, IBSA would be a bit fictitious. Accords like IBSA are limited [in their effects] because they have long lists of exceptions.”
The conflict between India and Brazil is a palpable reality. Jairam Ramesh did not invent it; as minister of state for commerce, he has been sitting beside Kamal Nath and watching the conflict in the WTO negotiations. And he is absolutely right about trade. What would we import from Brazil' Soybeans' Tobacco' Coffee' Sugar' We keep all these commodities out with high tariffs. What will Brazil import from us' Software' Drugs' Cars' Brazil is trying to build up precisely those industries and is protecting them.
Campos Mello’s report was published in Estado de São Paulo on August 29. Indian newspapers published it ten days later — just as the Prime Minister was preparing to leave for Brasilia. Was someone trying to wreck the trip' Or was someone trying to hang Jairam' That is perhaps excessive paranoia. Indian newspapers found a juicy story and printed it. More likely, our ambassador in Brasilia, whose embassy is not liberally endowed with knowledge of Portuguese, took time to obtain Campos Mello’s story, get it translated and send it to South Block, or South Block took its time to leak it to the press. One thing is certain. The Indian press had no one in Brazil in anticipation of the visit, and did not find out about the report on its own; someone in the government guided it towards the story.
Did the report wreck Manmohan Singh’s visit' He signed a number of treaties in Brasilia that he carries in his portfolio whichever country he goes to — on drug trafficking, terrorism, sanitary napkins and so on. These treaties are so trivial that no head of state would refuse to sign them just because he was slightly annoyed with the visitor. And as for the trade treaty, it is really the farce Ramesh makes it out to be. India is a pathologically protectionist country. It goes about signing trade treaties because other countries do it and it does not want to be left behind. But it gives insignificant trade concessions, and consequently gets equally poor concessions in return.
And were the Brazilians upset by Ramesh’s frankness' I have no window into Lula’s mind, but look at what Estado de São Paulo wrote. It said that Ramesh had simply said what everyone knew but the Brazilian government, lost in its third- worldist fantasy, insisted on ignoring. The Indians, like the Chinese and the South Africans, had a clear view of their interests and pursued them in all circumstances without being deceived by ideological illusions. The Indians won over G-20 to a defensive negotiating position on agriculture, against the interests of Brazil, which is competitive in agriculture. Brazil could be more flexible on services, but India would not be on agriculture. On free-trade agreements too the Indians were more focused. They had made agreements with countries in southern Asia and were negotiating with Japan, South Korea and countries of the Persian Gulf. The IBSA treaty would only serve to resuscitate the non-aligned movement in which, be it remembered, India was the leader, not Brazil. But trade was a different game; Indians knew it, and Brazilians did not.
If we are to go by what Estado de São Paulo said, the Brazilians have great respect for our cleverness, our mastery of realpolitik, of which Jairam Ramesh gave a brilliant demonstration. What must they have thought of Manmohan Singh’s mellifluous, flowery speeches' That the Indians are clever enough to camouflage their real intentions' And if we look at the positions we take in international trade negotiations, and at the way we lord over third-world institutions, can we say the Brazilians are wrong' They know us, and they know us irrespective of what Jairam Ramesh told them. If that bothers the Prime Minister, he should change trade policy — abolish import duties, make Indian agriculture internationally competitive, and join Brazil as an ally in international trade negotiations. If it does not, he should give Ramesh full marks for candour and prepare for the next meaningless, ceremonial visit.