The Ministry of External Affairs announced, in a press release on August 19, that the Minister of External Affairs (EAM) S Jaishankar will visit Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay from August 22 to August 27. The second sentence of the press release noted, “This will be EAM’s first visit to the South American region”; his first visit to the region, which is admittedly remote from India but nevertheless requires EAM’s attention has come after he has been in office for thirty-nine months!
It is true that Covid-19 which began in the early months of 2020 made travel difficult but it did not stop EAM during the past two years from making numerous visits to the US and Europe and the Indo-Pacific region. Brazil and Argentina are both important countries for they are members of the G20 and the former is also a member of the BRICS. Indeed, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was the Chief Guest for Republic Day 2020, indicating India’s desire to significantly upgrade the bilateral relationship. Even if EAM meets his counterparts from other countries on the side lines of multilateral or other events or keeps in occasional telephonic contact with them there is no substitute to personal visits to signal that India values its ties with the countries they represent. At this stage therefore all that can be said in mitigation of the delay of EAM travelling to this region is: “better late than never”.
Jaishankar’s first stop was Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. While earlier the Indian Ambassador in Buenos Aires was concurrently accredited to Paraguay India decided to establish a resident embassy in Asuncion a few years ago. This was a good step to enhance the Indian footprint in this land locked South American country. Indeed, Jaishankar and his Paraguay counterpart Julio Cesar Arriola inaugurated the embassy together. While a sudden expansion in the ties should not be expected gradual attempts to enhance India’s position in Paraguay should be made. It is also notable that Paraguay too had established its embassy in India some years ago; thus, underlining India’s growing profile in the world, including in South America.
From Paraguay Jaishankar travelled to Brazil which is not only South America’s most important country but is a significant emerging power in the world. Along with India, Japan and Germany, Brazil is a rightful claimant to a permanent membership of the United Nation’s Security Council. Under its mercurial current President Jair Bolsonaro Brazil suffered greatly because of his refusal to seriously accept the dangers of the Covid 19 pandemic. Brazilian politics has also gone through a rocky decade. Two former Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, who was President from 2003 to 2010 and his successor Dilma Rousseff, President from 2011 to 2016 faced criminal charges. Lula completed his term but was convicted on corruption charges and imprisoned. However, he was later exonerated by the judiciary and allowed to participate in politics. Rousseff was impeached and had to leave office due to corruption charges. Lula introduced welfare schemes for the poor during his Presidency and retains great popularity. He is now Bolsonaro’s main contender for Presidential elections slated for early October. Thus, Jaishankar’s visit has coincided with a turbulent period of Brazilian politics.
During his Brazil visit Jaishankar co-chaired the 8th India-Brazil Joint Commission with his Brazilian counterpart Carlos Franca. After the meeting he tweeted “Comprehensive discussions covered trade and investments, petroleum, biofuels, edible oils and minerals, health, pharma, traditional medicine, S&T, agri and livestock, space, defence, counter terrorism & consular domains”. The list is comprehensive and it is true that progress has been made in some sectors such as pharmaceuticals but the level of bilateral trade at US$ 11 billion is far below the potential. While a push is needed in all the areas Jaishankar tweeted what really is required is to expand the horizons of or our people, including in the academia to regions beyond the English-speaking world.
Argentina which is the third country on Jaishankar’s schedule also wishes to expand ties with India but has a different approach to Brazil on the issue of the expansion of the UNSC. It is part of the group which includes Pakistan which is opposed to the G4 ambitions in this regard. That should not inhibit India from developing close ties in areas which are of interest to it. Jaishankar will chair a Joint Commission meeting with his Argentine counterpart Santiago Cafiero. Jaishankar’s visit to Argentina is taking place when the country is the midst of an economic crisis. Inflation is running high and the value of the currency is falling. The people are restless while President Alberto Fernandez’s Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is facing corruption charges which may end up in her conviction. Cristina is a former President and the wife of a former President too.
India-Argentina commercial ties are limited. Bilateral trade is only around US $ 6 billion but there is the presence of Indian companies in Argentina who have invested around US $ 1 billion. There are opportunities in the agricultural sector for Indian investments too as also in some technological fields. The joint commission meeting should focus on specific areas instead of spreading cooperation too thinly.
There is on aspect of the Jaishankar visit which also requires comment. Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina are all members of the UN Human Rights Council. India’s Universal Periodic Review is scheduled to be held later this year in Geneva. The last Review occurred in 2017 but much has happened in the past five years which may the Review a little more complex than the past. No doubt Jaishankar may have had the Review in mind as he decided to embark on his first South American journey.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.