Goa takes world centre stage this weekend when Presidents Xi Jinping
of China,Vladimir Putin of Russia, Jacob Zuma of South Africa and
Michael Temer of Brazil join India’s own Prime Minister Narendra Modi
for the eighth annual BRICS summit. Others in attendance will be
Myanmar’s icon (and foreign minister) Aung San Suu Kyi, Nepal’s new
Prime Minister Prachanda, as well as Sri Lankan President Maithripala
Sirisena and Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The history of this ancient territory makes it well suited for such an
extraordinary summit meeting, bringing together some of the most
powerful leaders from across the international spectrum. Five hundred
years ago Goa became the first potent crucible between the East and
West, the first European colony in Asia, and site of an epic
intermingling and socio-economic-cultural exchange, which forever
changed both India and Europe, then the rest of the world. Look
further back – 1,000 or even 2,000 years ago – and it is evident that
this tiny sliver of Konkan coastline has always played an outsized
role by remaining open to the rest of the world.
Even across those millennia, however, Goa has never witnessed a
gathering quite as significant as this one. This weekend, the state
hosts men and women who together represent and lead more than three
billion people, well over 40% of the world’s population. Their
countries account for over 25% of global gross domestic product (GDP),
comprising the most significant engine for economic growth over the
past decade (and potentially, the rest of the 21st century).In the
unipolar contemporary world order, each BRICS member has consolidated
its position as a significant power.
Each individual leader also comes to Goa at a particularly dramatic
moment. Brazil’s Temer is struggling with his country’s worst-ever
recession, and an entrenched political soap opera (including serious
corruption charges against him and his party). Zuma of South Africa is
reeling under accusations of being “sponsor-in-chief of corruption”. A
few days ago, his country’s constitutional court allowed his
prosecution for “fraud, racketeering and corruption”.Mixed into that
remarkable array of charges is one of being paid off by the
Indian-origin Gupta family.
Vladimir Putin faces no criminal proceedings, but that is because of
his fierce hold on every aspect of Russian affairs. The “Panama
Papers” pointed to billions of dollars likely belonging to him, amid
persistent (and reliable) claims that he is the richest man in the
world, with over $200 billion stowed away. Lucre aside, he swaggers
around the world stage largely unchecked - annexing Crimea, plunging
into the Middle East to prop up Syria’s Assad, and (most probably)
hacking various databases to try and boost Donald Trump’s chances of
becoming the next US President.
Even in this terrifically colourful lineup - even including India’s
own Narendra Modi - by far the most intriguing (and powerful) person
in Goa this weekend will be Chinese President Xi Jinping. After rising
almost imperceptibly through the ranks, the 63-year-old has purged
hundreds of thousands of officials and ruthlessly sidelined every
possible challenger to consolidate astonishing dominance. Xi is the
most formidable Chinese leader since Mao, with the difference being
that the China he rules has been transformed into the second most
powerful country in the world.
There will be much action on the BRICS sidelines too. Nepal’s
Prachanda – former Maoist insurgent – meets Xi in a tense atmosphere
due to the Chinese perception that he is tilting towards India.
Burmese stateswoman Aung San Suu Kyi makes an emotional return to the
county where she went to school (and Lady Shri Ram College) just six
months after taking office, after enduring 15 years house arrest as a
political prisoner. Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh is coping with a
worrying rise in extremism, which risks impressive (better than India)
performance in crucial human development indices.
Focus back on Goa, host of all this geo-political grandeur, and the
term “Potemkin Village” becomes inescapable. Back in Russia in 1787,
Prince Potemkin hastily constructed pretty-looking cardboard villages
to deceive Empress Catherine II about the actual state of affairs.
This is identical to what has been thrown up in a frantic haste by the
state administration. It is a South Goa-scale pretense of efficient
administration, an incredibly costly make-believe of adequate
foresight and planning. Let one single Russian or Brazilian or Burmese
stray even a few steps outside the skin-deep subterfuge, and he or she
will find a moonscape of derelict, severely potholed roads and
highways, lined with ever-accumulating piles of garbage.
BRICS is all about aspiring for a better future, but in the meanwhile
who is going to fix the present?