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The portrayal of the BRICS leaders in Western media rarely inspires confidence, if they are to be believed.
They talk of a Chinese ‘regime of princes’, “corrupt” in the aftermath of the Bo Xillai scandal, an indecisive, ‘dithering’ approach to reforms by India’s Manmohan Singh, a ‘KGB-type Kremlin’ rule in Putin’s Russia where, if ‘pending’ autopsy reports are to be believed, poisonous tea is served to dissidents in London on a regular basis.
The almost routine vilification of South Africa’s “black” Jacob Zuma for support from a controversial business community and, miraculously enough, for corruption charges not sticking against him. Finally, isn’t Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff ‘nasty’, particularly after she snubbed US president Barack Obama last year?
Let us mute this prevailing chorus for a while and ponder — who are these individuals? Can they lead the BRICS through a transition? Do they have what it takes or are they squabbling leaders only in pursuit of personal power?
Most importantly, do they know their economics?
Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma
Take Jacob Zuma. Imprisoned for ten years for anti-apartheid activities, he was always a tough nut to crack. Zuma in Africanese means gedleyihlekisa, ‘one who smiles while grinding his enemies’.
His political future was written off when he was simultaneously battling allegations of rape and corruption – double charges that would have surely sunk the career of many politicians.
Zuma was acquitted of rape, but the corruption case proved harder to shake off. On 6 April 2009, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) of South Africa decided to drop the charges, citing political interference.
The charges were thrown out just weeks before the elections which saw him become president.
Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister has universally been hailed as the architect of India’s reforms; he is considered one of the most honest prime ministers.
Singh was also described as “a dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat presiding over a deeply corrupt government” by a leading US daily in September 2012.
Many, however, forget that this government surprised everyone by getting re-elected; partly because of the schemes that helped the rural poor.
Manmohan Singh oversaw the launch of the rural employment guarantee scheme (NREGA), the largest employment programme ever seen.
Is it any surprise that the Washington Post wrote off not just the Indian prime minister, but also it’s growth story? “As India’s economy has slowed and as its reputation for rampant corruption has reasserted itself, the idea that the country was on an inexorable road to becoming a global power has increasingly come into question,” they concluded.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
When Vladimir Putin became prime minister in 1999, he was immediately confronted by renewed rebel activity in Chechnya as well as a series of bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities.
Putin, with tremendous popular support, launched an immediate military campaign in Chechnya; he has not looked back since.
Putin’s family lived through one of the bleakest periods of Soviet history, the Nazi siege of Leningrad – his commando father fought behind the lines, and was one of only four to return from a deadly mission.
To date, Putin remains the longest surviving Russian leader, and after his second electoral victory in 2012, the Washington Post lamented what they called an “illegitimate regime”!
“Once again, he is president of Russia. The struggle to rid Russia of his corrupt and venal regime has only just begun,” they said
Dilma Vana Rousseff
Dilma Rousseff became Brazil’s first female president in 2011.
In her early 20s, Ms Rousseff was a part of a shadowy urban guerrilla group that battled Brazil’s military dictatorship and in 1970, she was captured and spent three years in prison, details of the torture she suffered shocked Brazil and the world.
In December 2011, a truth commission began examining the military’s crackdown on the population during a dictatorship that lasted two decades.
Brazilians were moved by disturbing details emerging about the painful pasts of both their country and their president; the torture endured by Ms. Rousseff, who was 22 when the abuse began and is now 64, is among the most prominent of hundreds of decades-old cases that the commission is today examining.
No wonder then that when the Economist suggested in December last year that she should get rid of her finance minister Guido Mantega following disappointing growth reports, she resolutely stood her ground.
“Under no hypothesis will a Brazilian government elected by free and secret vote be influenced by the opinion of a magazine that isn’t Brazilian,” Rousseff fumed, and rightly so.
Xi Jinping and Le Keqiang
As far as China is concerned, one politbureau replaces another but the man to watch out for is Xi Jinping, the only top Chinese leader to have traversed the ‘two worlds of China’.
He grew up in the luxury of Zhonganhai, the walled private compound where the Communist elite lives, but he also lived in the scorching poverty of the countryside.
His father, Xi Zhongxun, a vice premier who had been the founder of one of the Communist guerrilla armies in north China was held under house arrest until 1978, while his son was sent, at the age of 16, to work on a farm in Shaanxi, then one of China’s poorest provinces.
He left seven years later, as the Cultural Revolution ended. Later, he said: “It was emotional. It was a mood. And when the ideals of the Cultural Revolution could not be realized, it proved an illusion.”
His path to the top has taken him through almost every level of administration in the provinces of Hebei, Fujian, Zhejiang and saw him briefly run Shanghai.
In Hebei, he was nicknamed “God of Wealth” after building a theme park based on ‘Journey to the West’, the Chinese classic; but he also developed a reputation for cutting through the endless red tape of bureaucracy.
Li Keqiang, poised to become the new premier after Wen Jiabao, boasts a Ph.D in economics and is one of the few top Chinese politicians to speak fluent English.
However, the 57-year-old politburo member has humble roots, having been born in Anhui province’s Dingyuan county, the son of a low-ranking government official.
Aged 19, Li was dispatched to Anhui’s Fengyang county where he spent four years working with the farmers as part of Chairman Mao’s campaign to ‘re-educate intellectuals’.
In 1998, aged 43, Li was dispatched to Henan province, thus becoming China’s youngest ever governor the following year. He became party secretary in 2002 and two years later was sent to Liaoning where he built a reputation as a corruption-fighter with a commitment to the poor.
BRICS leaders victorious in battles at home
South Africa under Zuma has just woken up to a new national order where “blacks” not only have a say in ruling their own country but in contributing towards creating global wealth.
After the horrors of the private sector regulation in the seventies, the Indian turnaround has been steady; since the first reforms initiated by Manmohan Singh as finance minister, India has travelled far.
Not far enough perhaps, but given the country’s size and the dangers of growing inequalities in the event of accelerated reforms, 5.6 per cent growth though not momentous, is certainly a modest achievement.
Manmohan Singh has spearheaded this growth and with changes at the finance ministry, there is a greater sense of urgency.
Russian leader Putin is trying to fight the “negative” image of a Soviet leader, to restore Russian national pride and not appear to fritter away everything like erstwhile Boris Yelstin did to the West, encouraging crony capitalism.
Would the Western press have been kinder to Russia if instead of Putin, a more diplomatic figure had taken over?
Would the critics of BRICS be happier if all the five countries opened their doors to the international market without factoring in their unique domestic complexities?
BRICS success lies in real, inclusive growth, not quick reforms
The BRICS as a concept is global in its perception and they are now destined to play a greater role in the international stage.
The fact that they know their country’s pulse and people is what really matters; the real BRICS story is about inclusive and sustained growth in these five countries.
That involves almost three billion people, with a combined nominal GDP of $14.9 trillion, and an estimated $4 trillion in combined foreign reserves and, importantly, leaders who know them.
An agenda of reform must benefit people in the BRICS countries. The challenges are complex:
It is the leaders of these countries who have to make sure that everyone, even the most downtrodden, are involved in the growth story, no matter how long it takes.
BRICS is certainly not about quick returns on fast buck enterprises. That’s the Wall Street story we all know, and which led the West into an economic abyss.
Mercifully, BRICS leaders are not depending on such ‘brilliant’ economists who predicted a Wall Street boom just before the crash.
It is no surprise that the same soothsayers are now forecasting a BRICS bust and are looking for life beyond BRICS.