There are few countries around the world where Brazil’s rightwing president Jair Bolsonaro can be confident of receiving a warm reception.
One of them, however, is India, where the Brazilian leader arrived this weekend to cement relations with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, a fellow nationalist strongman who is also seeking to reshape society according to his own vision.
During his three-day state visit, Mr Bolsonaro will be the “chief guest” at India’s annual Republic Day parade — New Delhi’s most prized diplomatic invitation. It will mark a stark contrast from the Brazilian leader’s scrapped visit to New York City last May, when an outcry from gay rights and environmental groups prompted corporate sponsors to back out of a gala dinner in his honour.
“President Bolsonaro is committed to building this relationship and we would be warmly welcoming him as an honoured guest,” said Vijay Thakur Singh, a senior Indian foreign ministry official.
In part, India’s red carpet rollout will reflect overlapping economic interests. While India and Brazil are the world’s two largest emerging economies after China, their bilateral trade is a mere $8.2bn a year. As they struggle to revive their respective economies, the two leaders are seeking new potential markets and fresh investment.
“Given the complementarities and synergies that exist between our two countries, we believe the potential is much more,” said Ms Singh. “We have a very ambitious agenda.”
A spokesman for Mr Bolsonaro said: “The visit is part of the process of economic reforms, modernisation and opening up of the Brazilian economy, as well as recognition of the importance of Asia to Brazil.”
Brasília wants to sell its Embraer jets and its space technology. India, meanwhile, is pushing Brazil to follow through with pledges to establish a visa waiver scheme.
The discussions between the leaders and their teams, however, will be fraught on some issues, particularly on India’s sugar exports.
Following complaints from Brazil, Australia and Guatemala, the World Trade Organization last year launched an investigation into India’s sugar subsidy regime, which Brasília claims has contributed to a global sugar glut and depressed prices.
Indian sugar farmers are protesting against Mr Bolsonaro’s visit, which they see as a threat to their interests.
But for all the public emphasis on economic opportunity, analysts said New Delhi’s invitation to the combative Brazilian leader also reflected Mr Modi’s own evolution over the past six years. Mr Modi came to power in May 2014 promising to modernise and accelerate the growth of India’s economy, and his first Republic Day guest was US President Barack Obama.
But since his landslide re-election in May, Mr Modi’s administration has focused on a controversial and divisive sociopolitical agenda giving primacy to the country’s Hindu majority.
“The contrast couldn’t be more stark,” said Alyssa Ayres, author of the book Our Time Has Come: How India is Making its Place in the World. “You go from seeking to have Barack Obama, who was a community organiser who had been very active in fighting for equality in the US, to somebody that now stands for the rise of the global strongman. It just encapsulates Modi’s shift in strategy and what he wants to signal to the world.”
While Mr Bolsanaro is more intemperate than the careful Mr Modi, the two have similar inclinations. Both men, who have met twice before on the sidelines of international summits, have been accused of undermining democracy, and of being hostile to media, minorities and opposition leaders.
“Unfortunately, among the characteristics that bring both countries together is the conservative orientation of the two governments,” said Maria Antonieta Lins, an expert on international relations at the University of São Paulo. “As much as the trip is being heralded as a friendship between two great democracies, which is true, we have recent examples of intolerance in both.”
For Mr Bolsonaro, the visit to India offers the opportunity of a grand spectacle to boost his own diplomatic credentials, without fear of tough questions about his record in power. “The visit is part of a reality which is very new to Brazil, which is that the Brazilian president may not have a bilateral [visit] with a big European country during his presidency,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation.
“It is an easy visit for Bolsonaro, the Indians will never come and say: ‘We’re so concerned about the way you’re treating journalists’. It is a bit of a safe space.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice