By Dr D.K. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)
Many political observers, media persons and diplomats in both India and Canada dubbed Justin Trudeau’s week-long visit a disaster. Such a controversial and inconsequential visit by a head of a State has not been witnessed in recent diplomatic history. India ‘was embarrassed’, Justin Trudeau was given a ‘royal snub’, were remarks in the media. At any rate, irrespective of the impact the visit may have had on India-Canada bilateral relations, it has left a ‘bad taste in the mouth’ in India, and has drawn heavy criticism back home for the Canadian Prime Minister.
What could have gone so wrong before and during Trudeau’s visit, to make it so forgettable? Not to forget, some commentators did say that, from Trudeau’s stand-point, the visit was successful. He seems to have got what he came for. Without being judgmental, let us assess the visit from at least three angles – the objectives, the process, and the diplomatic protocols – rather the faux pas.
On the objectives, obviously, the Government of India had invited Trudeau to deepen India-Canada relations, and in particular to give a boost to Indo-Canadian trade transactions. This tied in with NaMo’s international campaign to ‘Make in India’ with foreign investment, to make India a ‘manufacturing hub’ of the world and so on. The India-Canada trade was about C$ 5 billion in 2015, whereas Canadian trade with China was C$ 56 billion. China, though way ahead of India in economic growth, it is still the reference point.
Notably, India and Canada are in negotiation for a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) since 2010. Ten rounds have been conducted till 2017, to sign off the agreement. Canada pressed for early conclusion of negotiations on a Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) to shore up investment in India. New Delhi would be inclined to expedite it if Ottawa were more sensitive to India’s concern about Sikh radicals in Canada meddling in Punjab.
Under a ‘landmark deal’ Canada signed up with India to supply uranium for five years from 2015 to power India’s atomic reactors. The $254 million deal was inked after four decades of frozen collaboration in this sector. Trudeau met several heads of civil society and industry in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, and discussed billions of investment. The visit did not go so badly in this area of India-Canada bilateralism.
The objective from Canadian or Trudeau’s perspective was quite different. He was addressing the large Sikh community in his constituencies. Trudeau has six Sikh Ministers in his Cabinet and was accompanied by more than dozen of Indian-Canadian MPs and Ministers to India. Trudeau pandering to the large Sikh community in Canada through a lot of symbolism has alienated Indian officials, politicians and even public. For Trudeau and his Liberal Party, a good deal of visuals was collected for next year’s federal elections. This is how domestic policy was mixed up with foreign policy to the chagrin of both New Delhi and Trudeau’s supporters in Canada.
Tracking back a bit, Trudeau has been seen to be heavily pro-Sikh in Canada; about 500,000-strong Sikh community there is overwhelmingly pro-Khalistan, a separate State demand that caused so much bloodshed. Khalistan has gone into almost oblivion in Indian psyche, even in Punjab where 60 per cent are Sikhs out of the population of 27 million. But strangely, as a part of ‘psychology of the uprooted’, the Canadian Sikhs continue to support separatism in Punjab.
The Sikh Ministers in Trudeau’s Cabinet, all four of them, are sympathetic to Khalistan issue. Jaspal Atwal, formerly of International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), a pro-Khalistani organisation, was seen at a function with Trudeau’s wife. This organisation gained international notoriety when its leader, Talwinder Parmar bombed an Air India flight in Toronto in 1985, killing all 329 passengers. A year later, Atwal was one of four men who attempted to murder Punjab politician Malkiat Singh Sidhu on Vancouver Island in 1986. He was convicted of the charge. Trudeau had attended almost all functions in Canada celebrating Khalistani related issues; last May, he attended the Khalsa parade where Sikh militants were honoured.
The process noticed in Trudeau’s itinerary involved lot of symbolisms, over indulging Punjabi Indian culture, prompting a Canadian journalist to comment, “For Trudeau, it is all about Sikh votes.” Trudeau family was wearing gaudy Indian dresses for each occasion to identify with locals, visiting Sikh shrines, initially refusing to meet the Punjab Chief Minister, a Sikh, opposed to any hint of separatism etc.
Trudeau stepped on every conceivable political landmine. To cap it all, Atwal was invited to the dinner hosted by the Canadian High Commissioner, in honour of his Prime Minister. When this was brought to Trudeau’s notice by infuriated Indian officials, Trudeau was truly embarrassed and withdrew the invitation forthwith. But the damage was done.
Towards the end of his visit, on day 6, Trudeau met Prime Minister Modi, held ‘serious talks’, jointly affirmed that the bilateralism will be based on “respect for the fundamental principle of sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of two countries.” Both PMs vowed to fight terrorism, etc. It seemed to have ended well, but the cold-shouldering of Trudeau prior to their meeting hardly went unnoticed. For instance, Modi, as is the custom, did not go to receive Trudeau, nor did NaMo accompany him on any of his visits to the four States, especially to Gujarat where he had earlier escorted Xi Ping of China, Netanyahu of Israel and Abe of Japan.
From the Canadian side, the critics of Trudeau argue that the visit could not have gone better. He has been ignored by Donald Trump before. Their contention is he is not terribly qualified to be the PM of Canada, but lucky to have been catapulted to this exalted position by the image of his father, who was a popular PM. Trudeau came to Parliament only in 2008 and became PM in 2015. He is known for gaffes of the kind committed by leaders like George W. Bush. A few of the famous ones are — the terrorists can retain Canadian citizenship, or China’s basic dictatorship has turned its economy around, or his articulation on North Korea, etc.
Discussing the merits of Canadian Prime Minister is not our domain of interest or protocol. We should focus on India-Canada relations. One wonders how New Delhi concurs in the itinerary of Trudeau, leaving him alone in his sojourn, how did Atwal get the Indian visa? Will any head roll for such a glaring oversight? Trudeau may have messed it up for his country, but surely New Delhi could have done better; as they say it takes two to tango. -INFA