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We Are Neglecting These Two Large Countries


We see our country as a world power and would like our elephant to overtake the dragon beyond the mountains. Today the G20 logo is displayed on a million hoardings in India. BRICS, too, has been a familiar acronym. But Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is currently making a conspicuous trip to China that seems little noticed in India even as China's party-owned media trumpets the Xi-Lula bonhomie.

Brazil's trade with China amounts to twice its trade with the US, which shows up next as the country's second most important economic partner. India, at number 10 on Brazil's international trade list, places ahead of the UK and France.

However, if Brazil, which is Latin America's largest and most populous country, were to rank its economic partners by a democracy-cum-population metric, India would be near the top.

Let's bring up a third continent and country here. In terms of population and a democratic framework, three countries seem to lead their continent: India in Asia, Brazil in Latin America, and Nigeria in Africa. While India and Brazil are members of BRICS as well as of G20, Nigeria, curiously enough, belongs to neither, even though in GDP terms oil-rich Nigeria seems recently to have replaced South Africa as the number one country in all of Africa.

We should also mark that Nigeria is the number one destination in Africa for China's investments, apart from being a significant supplier of oil to China. Yet nothing can remove the similarities between India, Brazil and Nigeria. Extending beyond size and a democratic constitution, these similarities include population diversity. In fact, diversity may be their primary common feature.

Of the more than 200 million people that Nigeria now has, about 45 percent are Muslim and 45 percent or so are Christian. However, religion is not the most important distinction between one Nigerian and another. Whether by birth you are a Yoruba or an Igbo or belong to another regional ethnicity seems to matter more in the country's more prosperous, and predominantly Christian, southern half. Nigeria's overwhelmingly Muslim northern half too is influenced by its own ethnic divides.

It was in the 1950s that people like me first learnt of Yorubas, Igbos (then spelt Ebos), and the Muslims of Nigeria's north. Nnamdi Azikiwe was a famous Igbo leader in Nigeria's struggle for freedom from Britain, and Chief Awolowo was an equally famous Yoruba leader, but Nigeria's first prime minister, who remained in that post for nine years, was Abubakar Balewa (1912-66), a Fulani Muslim from the north.

Although Nigeria has had to cope with secession and military takeovers, its democratic journey has been impressive, and it has displayed pragmatic statesmanship in trying to ensure that Christian and Muslim leaders alternate at the nation's top. That convention will not, however, be observed this year. On May 23, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the winner of Nigeria's recent elections, is scheduled to succeed another Muslim, Muhammadu Buhari, as president.

Tinubu's victory brings the number one position back to someone from Nigeria's south. Unlike Buhari, who was born in the northern state of Katsina into a family of Fulani and Hausa Muslims, Tinubu by ethnicity is a Yoruba from the south. He is wholly identified with Lagos, the megacity situated on Nigeria's southwestern coast and easily the African continent's most populous city. Until 1991, Lagos was Nigeria's capital. By making Abuja in the country's middle the new capital, Nigerians firmed up their national unity.

If perhaps 10,000 Nigerians live today in a range of Indian cities, most of them as students, the estimated figure for Indians living in Nigeria is eight lakhs, if we go by Wikipedia, which cites the BBC as it source. Given such numbers, the potential for partnership between Indians and Nigerians is clearly something that the Chinese dragon must envy.

Brazilians may not be as noticeable in India as Nigerians are. Their country is a good deal more distant than Nigeria, and the number of Indians who have made Brazil their home is much smaller when compared with Nigeria. However, Indians are probably more familiar with the name of the current Brazilian president, 77-year-old Luiz Lula da Silva, better known simply as Lula, than with the names Tinubu and Buhari.

In his previous spell as Brazil's president, from 2003 to 2010, Lula's pro-poor policies often made news in India. More recently, he made bigger news when, going from state prisoner to president-elect, Lula defeated the right-wing incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, in an election the world closely watched. Lula's victory over Bolsonaro delighted many in India and elsewhere, who were alienated by Bolsonaro's seeming unconcern over Covid and over the shrinking of the Amazon Forest, and by Bolsonaro's apparent willingness to cripple democratic institutions.

Although Portuguese is the language that Brazilians speak, Portugal, the European power that once controlled Brazil, ceased long ago to be a major factor in Brazil's life. Nonetheless, a common Portuguese connection in the past links Goa, Mumbai and some other parts of India to Brazil. Then there is football and the love that Indians harbour for Brazilian and other South American stars.

Brazil too, with more than 200 million people, has a variety of ethnicities like in Nigeria and India. The ethnicities include Indigenous American, European, African and Asian blood. It was slavery which centuries ago bequeathed African blood to Brazil. Unlike North America, Brazil was comfortable with inter-racial marriages and alliances. Much of its current population is thus a fusion. Yet racism is far from absent, observers say, in Brazil.

India, Brazil, and Nigeria clearly have much in common. Their modern stories suggest that the state of human rights in a diverse country may be strongly connected to the respect and friendship that different communities give to one another.

Brazil and Nigeria are India's counterparts in South America and Africa, and there is scope for greatly strengthening our relations with these two major countries in the areas of trade, international politics, art, and culture. In both cases, India's hand may be stronger than China's, despite the latter's large advantage in trade.

However, we must protect our democracy. Indians, Nigerians and Brazilians can learn from one another how a large country's diversity may be turned into wealth and strength.