(Image Credit: Twitter / X account of PM Justin Trudeau. The image is at this link)
A combination of hollow platitudes, lack of self-awareness and pandering for political advantage has resulted in a repeat of PM Trudeau’s disastrous visit to India in 2018. The damage to Canada’s interests is long-term.
DÉJÀ VU, SORT OF
When I learned that Prime Minister Trudeau would be attending the G20 summit in India, I crossed my fingers – he is prone to creating embarrassing moments for Canadians on any foreign visit, and when it comes to India, that risk is especially accentuated due to a bunch of factors. Most of them are amply discussed in Canada – like his penchant for dressing up in costumes and the soft corner that he has for the Khalistan movement – but there is one factor that only people who grew up in the Indian subcontinent in the second half of the 20th century can put their finger on. It is that as a result of colonial rule, much of it in the Victorian era, people there have an expectation that leaders from the western countries will behave in a manner that is not only above any reproach but also sets the standard for others to emulate. Mr. Trudeau’s happy-go-lucky informality is in stark contrast with this expectation.
Although this time around, PM Trudeau’s conduct in India was significantly muted in comparison with his last visit there, the way the visit went was cause for no less consternation. At a personal level, my feelings were mixed – perhaps even conflicted. As a Canadian, I found it grating that my Prime Minister was being given a cold shoulder by the Indian government – but as someone who analyzes Canadian politics, I could see why they would do so. The Hindi saying ‘kar bhala to ho bhala’ (‘Be nice, and nice things will happen to you’) comes to mind. There’s only so many times you can poke your finger in someone’s eye before you lose that person’s respect.
Canada’s fall from grace under PM Trudeau is all the more disturbing because, as Vivek Dehejia, who teaches at the Carleton University, wrote on his Liked In page: “When you consider that Paul Martin played a crucial role in setting up the G20, you realize that, under Trudeau, Canada has become a bit player, at best”. I would extend this ‘bit player, at best’ description beyond the G20; Canada has become largely insignificant on the global stage. This is disappointing in the extreme, because Canada has much to offer to the world. I hesitate to call this wound ‘self-inflicted’, because the wound has been inflicted by a narcissistic leader who lacks completely an understanding of the role that Canada is supposed to play in the global community of nations, and by the assorted sycophants, grifters and ideologues who surround him and insulate him from any sane words or ideas from outside their tight circle.
In a sense, what we saw in PM Trudeau’s 2018 visit to India was the early stage of a rot that has now reached its culmination. Much as we may be disconcerted by it, what happened was entirely logical and to be expected. When you read or watch the end of a story, play or movie, you have to remember that it is but an extension of what transpired earlier, and not something entirely novel. It is, sort of, déjà vu.
One point of dissatisfaction among many Canadians is that for many news stories – and particularly the ones showing PM Trudeau or the current federal government in a negative light – we have to depend on foreign media. This is redolent of Third World dictatorships and much-less-than-perfect democracies. I don’t think this comparison has been made by any pundit / opinionator of note in Canada, although ‘ordinary’ Canadians have done so in ample measure. In a nutshell, this is a sign that the media in the country is (a) afraid to speak the truth, or (b) in bed with the government / regime.
Given this track record in recent years, it was unsurprising that the first time I came across commentary on PM Trudeau’s treatment in India was via a Twitter / X post of Abhijit Iyer-Mitra:
I think we can safely add here that PM Trudeau was excluded & sidelined because the Indian government was hopping mad. The reason – in addition to the ones that have existed for a long time – is not far to seek. Less than a week before the G20 summit, Canada unilaterally ‘paused’ its trade negotiations with India. While we know about this from the Canadian media, it is pertinent to show how the Indian media reported on this. Here is the relevant part of the Outlook magazine’s report, where it quotes India’s High Commissioner to Canada, Sanjay Kumar Verma: “Though I am not aware of the exact reason(s), most likely, the ‘pause’ will allow more consultations with the stakeholders” (Emphasis added).
Let us pause here and ponder the highlighted segment above. Is it normal protocol to inform the chief diplomat of a country about such a major decision? And if not, is it still considered a courtesy? Given that the G20 is essentially a trade summit of the leaders of the main economies of the world, how much sense does it make to make such a major decision, that too unilaterally, ahead of that summit? Unfortunately, our government has not offered any explanation for making this decision. The Outlook report says this: “Canadian Trade Minister Mary Ng’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment”. So, we not only have a unilateral decision on a major issue (India is the world’s 5th largest economy), but also one for which we don’t know the ‘why’ of it.
And finally, Outlook concludes its (short) report with this: “Canada also houses a vast Indian diaspora including the largest Sikh population outside of India”. This statement sticks out as an odd one in a report on trade matters – until you consider the possibility that it is a combination of a broad hint and a veiled accusation. The ‘vast Indian diaspora’ is relevant for bilateral relations in terms of trade and other matters, and the mention of ‘the largest Sikh population outside India’ could be a reference to the strong base of the Khalistan movement in Canada – a movement that largely does not exist in India.
The opacity around this decision also extents to Canadian stakeholders in the policy. As Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe posted on Twitter / X, the Trade and Export Development Minister of his province, Jeremy Harrison, has written to Minister Ng saying that he “first heard of a pause in (these) negotiations through the media one week ago”. In his letter, Mr. Harrison has stated that Saskatchewan accounts for about 30% to 40% of Canada’s total exports to India, and is usually at the number 1 or 2 spot among all the provinces. Is this failure to keep such an important Canadian stakeholder in the loop inadvertent or intentional?
It is no secret that India has designs to emerge as a major global trading power in the near future. It is also equally well known that the government in China is not happy with the idea of India acquiring this status. Indians aren’t stupid – they know that our federal government as well as many of our politicians (both past and present) are unusually palsy with the CCP and its surrogate entities such as Huawei et al. Therefore, it would be natural for them to be sceptical and ponder the question: Is the CCP using the Canadian government as a proxy to thwart India’s ambitions on trade? Given the extensive nature of interconnections between the CCP and the federal government of Canada and other political influencers, this would be a reasonable question, from their point of view.
I suggest that in light of this, it is Canadians who should be hopping mad, not PM Trudeau. Via a combination of hubris and insecurity (the latter in the context of electoral self-interest), we have lost a good relationship with an ally that is both a rapidly growing economy and a fellow-democracy – not to mention a future regional (and possibly global) power. Rebuilding this burned bridge will take a lot of time and effort, and if CPC leader Pierre Poilievre does win the next election (as seems likely), this will be one of his major challenges as Prime Minister.
THE EMPTY SPACES IN-BETWEEN
From the Indian perspective, there is a veritable chasm between PM Trudeau’s actions and words, as well as between different words that he says at different times. Therefore, when he said that Canada would always defend certain freedoms, the Indians were understandably livid. Mr. Trudeau, along with his cabinet & caucus colleagues as well as his supporters in the public and the media can justify the invocation of the Emergency Act until the cows come home, but most Indians aren’t buying those justifications, especially when they see Mr. Trudeau’s statements about the farmers’ protests in India as inappropriate meddling in India’s internal affairs. That kind of hypocrisy (as they see it) has to evoke a sharp response.
Canadian media is mostly talking about the PM’s plane being stuck in India, and come Wednesday, they will likely move on to the Liberal caucus retreat in London, ON. But the Indian media is under no such compulsion. They will keep chewing Mr. Trudeau up and spitting him out. Consider the following examples:
- Senior Indian journalist Barkha Dutt on Mojo TV: “Modi basically slapped Justin Trudeau in the face”, talking to former CBC journalist Terry Milewski.
- Headline in the venerable Times Of India: “Khalistani extremism won’t help ties: PM Modi to Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau”
- The equally venerable Indian Express: “Strong concerns over anti-India acts of separatists in Canada: PM Modi to Trudeau”
- India Today magazine: “At G20, PM Modi points out ‘anti-India activities’ in Canada to Justin Trudeau”
- Even at the international news agency Reuters, consider the headline: “Modi scolds Trudeau over Sikh protests in Canada”
In the Canadian mainstream, it is considered off-limits – maybe even ‘right-wing’ (whether homegrown or of the Hindutva variety) – to treat the Khalistan issue as a factor that is likely to have an impact on Canada’s bilateral relations with India, and the mainstream media will most probably skirt the issue. Consider the fact that (as pointed out by Peter Menzies on Twitter / X) a story about PM Trudeau pulling away from a longer handhold with PM Modi had “disappeared across the country and been replaced by a happier story”.The cynic may validly conclude that Orwell’s ‘memory-holing’ of the earlier story took place.
But to any objective observer, it will be clear that India considers the Khalistan issue to be the fulcrum of their relations with Canada. What is treated as a matter of ‘freedom of expression’ in Canada impinges on India’s sovereignty, in Indian eyes. The gap between these two perspectives is made up of an empty space that Canadians are not supposed to venture into. This prohibition brings the relations to a deadlock situation: we won’t talk about it, and they won’t talk to us until we talk about it.
This creates another empty space between what benefits a political faction in Canada and what is necessary for the nation. Fortunately, this empty space is capable of being closed when another political faction gains ascendancy. But that is likely two years into the future, and in the interim, further damage may be inflicted on the national interests of Canada.
DEGREES OF FREEDOM
Of particular note here are the two components of what we see as ‘freedom of expression’, viz., the infamous tableau depicting the scene of former Indian PM Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the presentation of Indian diplomats in Canada as being complicit in the killing in Canada of a Khalistan supporter. As Terry Milewski mentioned in the chat with Barkha Dutt, in the UK, it is a criminal offence to glorify terrorism – and Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination was undoubtedly one. But Canada has made no move – either in actions or words – to follow in the footsteps of the UK. The debate over this – when it happens – tends to be inconclusive, but I think there is a quick way to settle it: Would it be treated as ‘freedom of expression’ if someone took out a tableau depicting the killing of Bhindranwale? I will stick my neck out here and state that it would be widely criticized and condemned. If my conclusion is correct, then it would expose the hypocrisy of the Canadian stance on ‘freedom of expression’ like nothing else can.
The Indian side justifiably sees our stance on ‘freedom of expression’ as being based on a dual standard, and until this stance changes, it will remain an obstacle in the path to cordial relations between the two countries.
PM Trudeau spoke about Canada always defending ‘freedom of conscience’, which may come as a surprise to those former Liberal MP’s who were barred by him from running for re-election (or any aspiring nomination candidates for the Liberal Party who were similarly barred by him) in the 2015 election on a matter of conscience. Ditto for the religious organizations that were told in no uncertain terms in 2017 that unless they signed away their conscience-based beliefs, they wouldn’t be receiving any summer jobs grants that year. Maybe Canada ‘always defends freedom of conscience’, but PM Trudeau certainly doesn’t – not always, at any rate, only when it suits him.
But that is a domestic concern in Canada, at least so far. The key factors in the relationship with India that make the main stumbling block are both related to his concern for electoral advantage, viz., his relationships with the CCP regime and the Khalistan movement, respectively. An adept statesman would find a way to balance his / her personal priorities with those of his / her allies, and it is clear as daylight that PM Trudeau has failed to achieve this balance – in a most disastrous fashion.
If he had to ‘pause’ the trade negotiations ahead of a trade summit for any reason, he should have had a backup / alternative agenda relating to trade to discuss with PM Modi (but then, the latter was in no mood to discuss anything with him). Instead, when asked what Canada had contributed to the final G20 leaders’ declaration, PM Trudeau was left talking about ‘inclusion of gender language and Indigenous reflections’ (see this clip). These words are valuable currency in Canadian politics, but their value at the G20 summit is zero. That, in a nutshell, is what Canada has to offer to the world under PM Trudeau – worthless platitudes motivated by personal interest, and I don’t think there is much appetite for those things in trade summits.
Independent voices are more important than ever in today’s Canada. I am happy to add my voice to the public discussions on current issues & policy, and grateful for all the encouraging response from my listeners & readers. I do not believe in a Paywall model, so will not make access to my content subject to a payment.
To help me bring more content to you, please consider donating a small amount via this PayPal link on my website: https://darshanmaharaja.ca/donate/