What began as an acronym for the five emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and later South Africa has fast taken institutional shape and is moving towards its sixteenth summit in mid-July in Brazil. The Indian prime minister as well as other heads of states will attend, underscoring the importance of the body.
The reason that the BRICS has raised international interests includes first, the great surge in their economies. China has raced ahead of the US as the world’s largest economy by a measure. Russia has stabilised its economy, decreased its debt and leveraged its natural resources. Brazil and India are seen to have comparatively high GDPs and a large middle class to uphold economic growth. At a time of international economic slowdown, this matters since BRICS is seen as an engine of growth.
Second, the decision of the BRICS to institutionalise and develop a loose organisation for collective interests can change the international balance. At a time of economic integration and globalisation, BRICS collective bargaining matters in bodies like the WTO, the IMF and in world environment forums. In these forums, the Western countries maintain their traditional hegemonic stance and gains.
For example, the IMF/World Bank is dominated by the West structurally through the voting and policy making patterns. Similarly, environmental summits demand that curbs be put on growth by emerging countries because of the pollution caused while discounting the pollution caused historically by the developed nations. So, only the BRICS can collectively negotiate to change policy.
The third aspect of great interest is the BRICS development bank. This has been partially set up and the Brazil meeting will further substantive steps. This would mean an alternative to the World Bank/IMF. This bank would not trade in local alternative currency, reducing the dependency on dollars, bypassing the traditional dollar routes. Russia and China have already signed a trillion-dollar gas, energy and trade deal for the next 10 years to be carried out in their own currency shaking the world economy. Earlier India-Soviet trade was carried on as rupee-rouble basis helping both countries. If the BRICS follows this Russia-India-China model, it would be path breaking for the southern countries.
Fourth, the BRICS nations have also become major development givers turning the concept of foreign aid to the lesser developed countries. The Western model of aid is based on charity, conditionalities and Western terms. Whereas the aid given by the BRICS is based on no internal intervention or conditions such as regime change, human rights, etc. The southern countries, thus, have much more choice and leverage between countries for development assistance. The Paris principles of Western aid have, thus, been challenged.
So far, the BRICS has primarily confined itself primarily to an economic agenda. But the political agenda is not far behind, even though it is not well-articulated. The BRICS nations have had a common vision on many international issues. Thus, for example, they see fairly eye to eye on West Asia. Here, they all believe that the West and NATO should not have carried out regime changes and bombed Iraq and Libya, that this undid the stability of this sensitive and volatile region.
All the BRICS nations believe that a regional solution is important in resolving international problems like Afghanistan and West Asia. That they should also be on the high table when such negotiations take place. All the BRICS nations would favour some UN reforms to make it more democratic. They are all concerned on the best way to counter international terrorism. However, these political issues have not taken the front seat in this body as yet, and economic issues continue to dominate.
So will the BRICS become an alternative body that can shape international discourse and challenge Western hegemony? Clearly, no one can promise that. This is because the members also have their own internal contradictions. One major problem is that of discourse legitimacy. Some such as Russia and China are seen as very authoritarian and thus no role model for politics. The international community is clearly worried about the direction that internal democracy in India, Brazil and South Africa takes, with all their problems of maintaining their plural and contradictory structures, where accountability is low, violence is high and the decorum for a real participatory and just democracy lags behind.
Moreover, international geopolitics is such where many of these countries may not want to commit to the BRICS consolidation as they may get tempted by other blocs, including the Western one, or one sabotages by some countries like Israel that would like a restructuring of West Asia or Japan and the US that would not like to see China as a world leader. India-China rivalry is also an issue.
In these circumstances, all the BRICS nations will have to tread carefully. They will have to not just concentrate on growth and GDP but also on other human development indicators like equity, removing the underbelly of poverty and providing internal development. Moreover, they will have to improve their democratic and governance records which means they have to weed out corruption, further transparency, strengthen rule of law and justice for all their diverse communities.
This is indeed a tall order. India can take a big step as a leader in human development, justice, deeper participatory democracy as it does have a somewhat better record on most of these issues compared to the rest of the BRICS. But these are all precariously balanced in India as well. It is only if it furthers these can India take a lead even over the rest of the associates whose democratic credentials have been questioned by the international community.
The BRICS is now an irreplaceable body. Its role and the interest it has gained in world policy making bodies like the G8 and G20 shows that it needs to consolidate further. The question is will it resolve its own internal as well inter-BRICS contradictions? Time and leadership alone will tell.
The writer is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.