India has just finished hosting the leaders of Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa on the occasion of the fourth BRICS summit (the ‘I’ stands for India), a conglomeration of nations in widely disparate stages of economic growth and political openness.
China, clearly, is streets ahead of everyone in terms of its GDP growth, while South Africa stands on the bottom of the scale. India and Brazil are somewhere in between, but Brazil is way ahead of India on the inclusive growth scale — with its constitutionally guaranteed healthcare systems — and India’s experiments with balanced growth have, at best, delivered middling results. As for Russia, it is still a powerful country with a huge military arsenal even though in economic terms it is declining rapidly.
Now if that sounds like a mixed bunch, well, so it is. Fairly cynical Indians point out that each country has far larger economic relationships with the advanced economies (read, the US, Germany and others), and that BRICS is really, a sideshow at best. ‘No mortar in Brics’,’ was a headline that captured this point of view the morning after the summit.
Then there was the view on the other end of the scale, which pointed to BRICS being a reinvented nonaligned forum, or perhaps, a variant of the Commonwealth. That too would be an incorrect analysis. If anything, the middle-of-the-road view is probably the truest: Here are five countries who hope that they can get something out of hanging out with each other, even if most of their business is still conducted with western nations.
There is something to be said for this middle-of-the-road opinion, even if it is a traffic policeman’s nightmare. This is the fourth summit for these nations — the first one was held in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in 2009, followed by those held in Brazil and China — and they have already begun to think in interesting ways. The Delhi meeting will be remembered for coming up with the idea of a BRICS development bank that will allow each country to trade in their local currencies, as well as offer loans in each others’ countries, thereby spurring growth.
Perhaps, the BRICS bank also has ambitions to one day replace the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — institutions that are dominated by the US and Europe respectively — or perhaps, the Asian Development Bank, which is dominated by Japan. True, that day is still far off but there is no harm in dreaming? It was hugely interesting to see how, on the morning after the summit, various western newspapers — from The New York Times to the UK’s Daily Telegraph — thought that the BRICS summit was something between a yawn and a bloated bureaucracy.
Perhaps, that is what makes me think that there may be something to the idea, after all. Why would western journalists — otherwise romancing the idea of high growth in India, who they want to use to take on countries like China — be so discouraging about another talk shop?
I think it is the India-China association that disquiets them. Clearly, there is significant rivalry between both these Asian powers, but for some reason the West has begun to think of India as a counterfoil to China. Certainly, it would be silly for Delhi to get caught up in someone else’s game.
Still, the BRICS summit was also the occasion to think of the long, but sad road SAARC has travelled. Question is, why can’t we get our act together in South Asia?
Published in The Express Tribune, April 3rd, 2012.