Meet Dilma, Brazil’s next Prez

Dilma Rousseff may have failed to secure the widely expected absolute majority in the first turn, yet she seems certain to beat her rival, José Serra, in the run-off on October 31 and become Brazil’s first female President. She will lead a nation that never before in history has been as powerful as it is today. Yet, unlike Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, her charismatic predecessor who made relations with emerging powers like India a priority, Ms Rousseff’s agenda is likely to be filled with domestic issues, and she is unlikely to appreciate the great potential the ties between Brazil and India hold. Indian policymakers must, therefore, reach out to Brazil’s new President and actively promote ties to preserve the gains made over the past decade.
Yet, who is Dilma Rousseff, and what can the world expect of her?

Born in 1947 into a well-to-do family in Belo Horizonte, an industrial hub in the interior, she received a top-notch education. Yet, since Ms Rousseff’s father was a Bulgarian immigrant, the Rousseff family was never part of the Establishment. At the age of 20, Ms Rousseff engaged in one of the countless Leftist student organisations created as a reaction to the military coup in 1964. She helped coordinate armed operations, administered money obtained from bank raids, and was captured in 1970, tortured for 22 days, and released only two years later.

Despite this horrific experience, Ms Rousseff returned to politics, this time within the legal framework. Aged 38, shortly before the end of the military dictatorship, she became secretary of finance in Porto Alegre, a large city in the south. Always known for her pragmatic hands-on approach, she developed the reputation of a skilled technocrat, and in 2001, Mr Lula, then a presidential candidate, named her junior adviser on energy issues. Surrounded by Leftist ideologists, Mr Lula soon identified her as a no-nonsense problem solver who, at times in a highly undiplomatic, never backed away from confrontations.

When asked about her rough demeanor, Ms Rousseff retorts that women still face prejudice in Brazilian politics. “When women are in a position of authority”, she has said, “they are always called overly hard and cold”. If she were a man, the single mother of one daughter claims, her style would not be an issue.

Her message during the campaign was simple: Ms Rousseff would continue Mr Lula’s policies, and represent the man who enjoys approval ratings of over 70 per cent in his eight year in office. Despite their different styles — Mr Lula is folksy and charismatic, Ms Rousseff is uninspiring and methodical — Mr Lula has been able to transfer his popularity to his protégé, who has never held an elected office before.

What would a President Rousseff mean for Brazil and the world? On the domestic level, more of the same. She is less populist and more pragmatic than her predecessor, and while Mr Lula hopes to pull the strings in the background, he most likely underestimates Ms Rousseff’s ability to claim power. Despite her leadership abilities, party ideology may become a hindrance during her presidency. She may face insurmountable political obstacles that keep her from cutting government spending, reforming social security, modernising labour and tax laws, which are Brazil’s most urgent problems that keep it from growing as fast as China and India.
Yet, similar to Uruguay and Chile, Brazil’s political system is so mature that no candidate can truly rock the boat, and even a mediocre President is unlikely to get Brazil’s growth story off track.

With regards to foreign policy, Ms Rousseff will attempt to continue Mr Lula’s foreign policy, although she can’t possibly fill the shoes of her predecessor, who has become a darling of leaders across the globe. Brazil’s foreign policy is currently highly personalised, and it is unlikely that a technocrat like Ms Rousseff will be able to emulate Mr Lula’s approach. Indian policymakers must, therefore, use the transition of power to fortify ties, which have provided mutual benefits and have significant upward potential.

IBSA, a trilateral alliance between India, Brazil and South Africa, established in 2003, is a good start which helps members exchange knowledge on technical issues such as education, public health and agricultural productivity, an area where Brazil can be particularly helpful to India, which struggles to modernise its agricultural sector.
Finally, both countries seek to democratise global governance and hope to enter the UN Security Council as permanent members. Collaboration in these projects seems indispensable to assure success. With Mr Lula gone, India needs to assume leadership and strengthen the Brazilian-Indian friendship.

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