Modi’s critical moment: What can India learn from Brazil?

modi-dilmaIn 2014, citizens of the two biggest democracies in the BRICS club – Brazil and India – went to the polls to elect their leaders. India chose Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May, while Brazil re-elected President Dilma Rousseff in October. The election results went viral worldwide as they were among the most Tweeted and Facebooked moments of the year. However, the parallels between the electoral experiences of the two countries stop there.

Whereas India breathes an unprecedented optimism, Brazil senses an unexpected pessimism. Behind those national sentiments are two leaders who will direct their countries in very different directions of development in coming years.

Modi appears to be a powerful and transformational leader who campaigned by promising changes for India. Adversely, Rousseff seems to be a weak and defensive President who ran for re-election attempting to convince citizens that Brazil has already changed a lot. Modi won his election based on the idea of minimum government and maximum governance. Rousseff, on the other hand, embraced the vague campaign motto “More Changes, Better Future,” which shows a lack of clarity about what type of future and changes she wants.

Economic reforms are at the top of the political agendas in both countries, which they definitely need, but their economic outlooks are poles apart. In each country there is a widespread perception among citizens and international investors that India is moving forward while Brazil has stopped in time. The Indian economy is expected to expand almost 6 percent in 2015, a new historical high. On the flip side, the Brazilian economy is projected to grow by less than 1 percent next year. That is on the heels of a gloomy 2014 in which its currency depreciated 9 percent and its stock market barely grew.

How should India take advantage of this unique moment and effectively move forward on a transformative path? The frustrated Brazilian experience in sustaining economic growth and promoting a conciliatory vision of development can serve as an example that India should avoid.

A year after Brazilians first elected Rousseff in 2010, the government was deemed outstanding by almost 62 percent of the citizens. The government had promised higher growth and an enlargement of social programs. But today, the promises of change have not fully materialized. In 2014, Brazil is experiencing its worst economic performance in decades, and political polarization is growing. As a result of a growing popular discontentment, Rousseff was reelected by a 3 percent margin this year; in 2010, that margin was 12 percent. Brazil teaches us that when countries become freer, fairer and potentially more prosperous, they should not be so reliant on their national political leadership to thrive.

As captivating and inspiring as national leaders might be, their leadership is not the solution to deep problems. Countries that want to embark on a sustainable process of change cannot be hostages of their own leadership. This is especially important for India, whose Prime Minister won the general election with a limited vote share. Modi’s government is one of the weakest in India. His party vote share of 31 percent is the lowest obtained by a party that managed to form a governing coalition.

Indians’ eagerness for change is enormous and greater than the “Modi Wave.” It is important to remember that India accomplished a lot before Modi. Indeed, India’s drive for change comes from the transformative capacity of its people, and a dream of prosperity that is slowly being consolidated. These dreams are reflected in major scientific accomplishments in recent years. In fact, the scientific achievements of India are so great that nobody could have ever imagined that a developing country could be capable of such success.

For example, India is home to the second largest pool of scientists in the world, and the Indian space programme encapsulates the scientific success of the nation. India recently became one of a select group of nations with the capability to launch satellites and carry out inter-planetary missions.

Brazil’s achievements are also impressive. Brazil has become a leading country in the field of tropical agriculture technology, producing innovative products such as ethanol fuel. The country has developed deep-water oil extracting technology to become self-sustainable in energy. However, Brazil has fallen victim to the habit of expecting too much from its leaders who have created an unrealistic aura of success.

The recent history of Brazil’s oil state company, Petrobrás, is an example of a success that turned out to be a mirage. Petrobrás was one of the world leaders in deep oil drilling technology, and one of the most valued companies in the world. In just two years, due to poor investment decisions and mismanagement of funds by politically appointed officials, it became one of the lowest valued oil companies in Latin America. When an unconsolidated sweet success is celebrated too much, it can easily lead to a bitter failure.

Under Modi, India must find the right balance between a strong national leadership, popular expectations for change and an optimistic vision of progress. Change can certainly be achieved, but Indians need more than just the will of a strong leader. In order to be realised, sustainable change requires a clear vision of the future, confident citizens and, above all, a notion of progress that is inclusive.

(Prof. Helder Ferreira do Vale is Acting Head of Hankuk University’s Latin American Department)

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