Why did Modi not receive Justin Trudeau himself with his customary hug?

Published: March 5, 2018
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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) along with his wife Sophie Gregoire (L) pay their respects at the SSikh Golden Temple in Amritsar on February 21, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

As liberal democracies and countries that don’t have grating disagreements on international affairs, India and Canada should have historically shared a cordial relationship. Since the turn of the century, with India’s ties with the US strengthening and a certain geopolitical convergence emerging, India and Canada had sought to transform their relationship to a strategic partnership.  

However, as Justin Trudeau’s recent visit to India has shown, this relationship has been and continues to be strongly influenced by the Sikh diaspora in Canada.

Reports suggest that the disagreements with the visit began with the planning of the trip itself. While the Indians wanted a short trip focused on the bilateral relationship, Trudeau insisted on a longer visit with his family in tow. Indians wanted him to wrap up business first but Trudeau insisted on sightseeing first. When Trudeau landed in New Delhi, Narendra Modi did not receive him at the airport with his customary hug, which is how he receives guests of importance.

Much has also been said about Trudeau’s sartorial choices with many saying that he came across as facetious. While leaders are allowed a certain leeway in bringing their personal touch to diplomacy, it was widely believed in India that at a time when India had pressing concerns to discuss, Trudeau doing the bhangra seemed like forced euphoria and suggested that he had misread the context.

International media picked up on the responses that Trudeau was getting in India for his gaudy ‘costumes’ that made him look like a caricature, with John Oliver asking what the Modi equivalent in Canada would look like. Social media was equally remorseless.

Seeing as he was attempting to be Roman when in Rome, the criticism that he faced on this account was perhaps a bit churlish. Planning related disagreements are also only minor niggles that cannot entirely scuttle a visit at this level. But all of this only served to compound India’s main gripe that Trudeau is an apologist when it comes to Sikh extremism.

When Canada’s Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan Singh visited India last year, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amrinder Singh refused to meet him, because according to the CM, Harjit was a Khalistan sympathiser. So when Trudeau visited with Sikh members of his cabinet including Harjit, the question was whether he would meet the chief minister or not. They eventually did meet and Trudeau reiterated his government’s support for a united India. This was an important meeting as it was seen as one that mended fences. So at this point, half way into the week-long visit, despite other issues, the trip seemed to be going as well as it could have, given the circumstances. Trudeau may even have been able to make something of the visit from here and reduce the trust deficit between the two countries to some extent, but that is when someone quite literally photobombed the entire trip and left the Indo-Canadian relationship in shambles.

Jaspal Atwal is a convicted terrorist who attempted to assassinate an Indian minister, Malkiat Singh Sidhu, in Canada in 1986. As photos of Atwal with Trudeau’s wife Sophie and other Canadian ministers at a reception in Mumbai along with an invite for another reception in Delhi started surfacing on social media, all hell broke loose.

The media of both countries demanded an explanation. The Indian media was particularly vociferous given that Trudeau’s perceived lack of sensitivity to India’s point of view on Khalistan had been simmering under the surface all along. With Atwal’s pictures, those perceptions which were suspicions for many until that point, were confirmed. The Indian media was scathing in its criticism of Trudeau and it was clear that the visit had only served to damage Indo-Canada ties and widen the trust deficit instead of addressing it.

How Atwal came to be there and how he received an Indian visa, are questions that are still being debated. The answers to these emerging questions are only further souring the bilateral relationship. A Canadian MP had apologised and had taken ownership for having extended the invitation to him. But then, the Trudeau government, in an attempt to exonerate itself from failing to vet the guest list, made the audacious allegation that Atwal’s presence was an attempt by a section of the Indian establishment to scuttle his visit. India protested strongly, referring to the allegations as “baseless and unacceptable” and has now raised the import duty for chickpeas from Canada from 40% to 60% at a time when Trudeau had lobbied to have it reduced to below 40%.

Clearly the bilateral ties are in a tailspin.

It should not have come to this. While India certainly doesn’t want to see the Khalistan tide rise again, it has every reason to repose enough faith in its own Sikhs to know that Punjab and Indian Sikhs have no secessionist aspirations whatsoever. There is no reason to be insecure on this account and allow that insecurity to affect bilateral ties.

Canada, for its part, must show greater sensitivity towards concerns regarding balkanising forces that flourish on its soil and work towards isolating them. The problem, however, is that bilateral ties are only rarely prioritised over domestic concerns and internal political expediencies. Therefore, it may well require a change in the fundamental circumstances (a conservative government in Canada, perhaps) for the Indo-Canada relationship to recover meaningfully.

Trudeau’s visit is an important caveat and an example of how, in an era of globalisation, even relatively small but influential diaspora populations will influence bilateral ties, especially between developed and developing countries to a greater extent in the time to come.

Ayush Khanna

Ayush Khanna

The author is an Environmental Engineer from Bengaluru, India. He writes on history, economics and socio-political issues. He tweets @AyushyaKhanna (twitter.com/AyushyaKhanna)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.