When Brazil kicks football, take note

The unprecedented demonstrations across Brazil with a million-man march in Sao Paolo last Saturday has a message for India and the host of countries classed as “emerging”.
It is that in balancing basic welfare programmes, inadequacies and the evils of corruption with enhancing the country’s prestige in the world, governments can come a cropper. And Brazil, with its vast natural resources and the charisma of its previous President Lula da Silva, was seemingly all set for success.
Weeks of popular demonstrations in Turkey fall in a somewhat different category. Those protests were against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempts to constrict, in a Turkey of Ataturk, secular civil and political space in favour of his concept of a modern Muslim state. In Brazil’s case, now ruled by
Mr Lula’s chosen lieutenant, Dilma Rouseff, public anger, which started with a rise in bus fares (now mostly rescinded), boiled over on a range of issues stemming from the feeling that instead of looking at alleviating the inadequacies in education and health services, the country had spent billions of dollars in building stadia for the football World Cup and the Olympics.
Brazil’s success story, demonstrators are saying, is flawed because of the existing levels of corruption, a bane of the developing world. The intensity of the demonstrators’ feeling can be gauged from the fact that Brazil is a football-mad country and has produced such stars as Pele, the god of football, who is now being criticised as being half-hearted in supporting their cause.
Unlike in Turkey’s case where Mr Erdogan condemned the demonstrators as looters and bums, Ms Rouseff said she was listening to the protesters, and later went on television to put forward a set of proposals to pump money into healthcare and education. Her proposals have met with some scepticism because of their general nature. And the public mood can be gauged by the popularity of the Chief Justice, Joaquim Barbosa, for his attempt to bring the corrupt to justice. Politicians in general have drawn much criticism in the prevailing low popularity season. Ms Rouseff will seek re-election as President next year.
Brazil is an immensely rich country in resources, but despite Mr Lula’s commendable efforts in giving a better deal to the poor and the disadvantaged, it remains a deeply unequal society, like most emerging countries, with favelas coexisting with luxury housing and corruption a growing and pervasive phenomenon.
The story of Mr Lula’s rise from a humble trade unionist to the presidency is in itself the stuff of romance, but he could not overnight transform the country’s structure and is himself facing vote-buying charges.
Perhaps, the former President and his successor got carried away by their success in giving their country a new thrust, buttressed by new oil discoveries. The bid for the World Cup and the Olympics was fired by this phase of can-do machismo leading to the feeling that Brazil had already arrived. Having bagged both was a considerable feat. As India discovered in the cost overruns and alleged corruption surrounding the more modest Commonwealth Games, in Brazil, delays and astronomical costs and flaws in football stadia and other works for the Olympics reached mind-boggling proportions.
And resentment was already building up among the young and all those affected by the crime- and drug-infested favelas and stark inadequacies in education and health facilities. The spark was provided by the decision of more than one provincial governor to raise bus fares, and the dam burst, taking the President and the whole political establishment by surprise. In Brazil’s case, even the foreign ministry was not spared.
As is inevitable in large-scale protests, whether in Brazil or Turkey, small groups indulged in violence and destroyed public property.

The new widespread unrest in Brazil raises wider issues for emerging countries. At what stage can a nation see itself as having emerged and what resources should it divert to showing off its new status? Has Brazil overreached itself in securing two crown jewels, two of the most spectacular events in the world? Judging by the articulate public’s reactions, it would seem so.
The truth is that developing countries on the mend ruled by democratic dispensations have a Herculean task in righting generations, if not centuries, of inequalities.
In sheer numbers, China has been spectacular in pulling millions of people out of poverty but is still coping with others left behind. Judging by the scale of the problem, India’s record is, in some respects, laudatory although, much remains to be accomplished. Mr Lula’s contribution in this respect is praiseworthy but is dwarfed by the state of favelas and the scale of corruption that exists.
There is no magic wand to surmount the problems of unequal development and corruption in emerging countries. Even in the case of China, President Xi Jinping’s crusade against corruption, his effort “to kill tigers and flies”, is only the beginning of a long process, despite the high-profile cases that are being touted as an example of the new resolve.
The irony of President Rouseff, who suffered in fighting the old dictatorial regime (she was imprisoned for three years and tortured by the military regime), losing her popularity in the recent and continuing demonstrations is a stark commentary on Brazil’s changing mood.
In Brazil, when football takes second place to people’s other concerns, it spells danger. There seems to be a division among protesters over giving Ms Rouseff a chance to implement her reforms, but sceptics are suggesting that many of her proposals are warmed-over recipes she was unable to implement in the past.
The rest of the emerging world would wish President Rouseff well as each country fights its own demons. But the warning signs for those viewed as “emerging” are loud and clear. Prestige in the world must take second place to the urgent needs of people. Skewing the balance can only invite trouble. India should take this lesson to heart.

The writer can be contacted at snihalsingh@gmail.com

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