For transparent Brics, India must push for greater engagement with civil society

What is common to the mass anti-corruption protests in India in 2012, the upsurge in Brazil against the rising costs of transport and government spending on sporting infrastructure in 2014, the so-called ‘snow revolution’ in Russia in 2011 in favour of fair elections and the 2011 pro-democracy stir in China — apart from the fact that these are all Brics nations?

At the heart of each one of these stirs is a story of marginalisation. Of a perception of being side-lined by a political and economic process that favours processes rather than people, which favours the well-connected at the expense of the excluded.

Zoom out a little. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and its companion agreement, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), are being negotiated in secrecy. Whistleblowing website Wikileaks' leaking of some of the draft chapters has caused consternation among the general public. Zoom out a little more from trade deals to geopolitical divorce. A slim majority of people in the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union because they felt that the British government had lost the power to make laws to a supranational European entity in Brussels. Even Donald Trump is promising to rip up ‘unfair’ trade deals that have shafted working class Americans.

New Development bank BRICS

File photo of Brics leaders. Photo. Reuters

The root of all this rage is not difficult to understand: It’s a belief that power does not really rest with the people, as is the implicit promise in a democratic society, but is concentrated instead in the hands of unaccountable leaders.

Which is why, as India assumes the chairmanship of the Brics this year, it may want to give thought to encouraging greater engagement between governments of the grouping of emerging global economic giants and civil society. As one of the Brics nations with a strong democratic tradition and a vibrant civil society, India could play a key role in ensuring that the Brics does not become another non-transparent and unaccountable geopolitical acronym.

A promising start was made in 2013, when Brazil took the initiative to hold a dialogue with civil society organisations for their inputs about the Brics process. That tradition continued with South Africa in 2014 and Russia in 2015 and looks set to continue this year in India. In fact, the Ministry of External Affairs is funding a ‘Civil Brics’ conference in October, which will run parallel to the summit. A series of consultations in the run up to October will try and engage with trade unions, farmers unions and unorganised workers and what Brics means to them. One such event is being organised in New Delhi this week by Oxfam India and the Peoples’ Budget Initiative coalition.

The Brics group of nations — comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — account for 43 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the world’s GDP and 30 percent of its landmass between them. They are also home to 50 percent of the world’s poor. This is why it is important for the Brics to engage with their citizens and their civil societies to get their inputs about the process. In turn, the latter will be hoping to influence the official outcome in some way, which may or may not happen.

An important demand of civil society has been to 'institutionalise' the civil Brics process. Even though the process started as a dialogue between the govt and civil society three years ago, and graduated to a formal process of exchange of views in 2015, it hasn't been institutionalised yet. Doing that, will ensure commitment to transparency and openness on the path of the Brics and willingness to engage with civil society in public opinion. The civil Brics happens at the discretion of member countries, but institutionalising it will ensure that it will happen regardless of who becomes the chair.

A more practical issue could be that trade deals, at least at the negotiating state, need to be done in secrecy. A former Indian trade negotiator, who was involved in WTO talks, said that the ‘art of the deal’ (to borrow a popular phrase being thrown about these days) requires that your opposite number should not have a clue about what you have in mind, or any aces you may have up your sleeve. Any information they get will weaken your hand.

However, in the interests of a fair and transparent Brics, it is better to engage with civil society. And India, with its strong democratic traditions and a robust civil society can play a strong role in ensuring this.


Published Date: Jul 28, 2016 08:31 am | Updated Date: Jul 28, 2016 10:04 am