The Canadian press has reported that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had supported the claim of one of the public service officials in his government blaming “factions in Indian government” for “sabotaging” his recent trip to India. This amounts to ulta chor kotwal ko daante, the thief blaming the police.
Trudeau could have been a little more serious. India-Canada relations are much more serious a matter than a pleasure trip or a blame-game. Trudeau’s decision to mix a family vacation with his maiden India visit was ill-advised. He spent nearly a week in India, an eyebrow-raising duration for any foreign head of state. Of course, the visuals of his beautiful family — wife and three children — visiting various places, including the Taj Mahal, have charmed countrymen, but beyond that the visit has attracted more controversy and criticism than substantive bilateral diplomatic benefits. And now, Trudeau’s officials think it was India which sabotaged the visit!
Trudeau’s advisors have failed him on more than one front. It could have been a shorter and more focused visit. More importantly, they could have avoided too much emphasis on domestic “identity politics” on foreign soil.
In Canadian politics, the Sikh community is undoubtedly playing an increasingly significant role. Although it constitutes only around 1.5 per cent of Canada’s population, there are 20 members of parliament from the community and four of them are ministers in the government. The community is prosperous. Jagmeet Singh, a second generation Sikh lawyer from Ontario, became the first minority leader to get elected as the leader of a Canadian federal party called the New Democratic Party. He is seen by many as the next challenger to Trudeau for the prime minister’s post.
All this and the solid backing of the majority of the Sikh community to his Liberal Party seems to have encouraged Trudeau to carry his domestic identity politics all the way to India too. The delegation that accompanied him had a couple of members accused of involvement in or sympathy to the Khalistan cause. From his dressing to his dancing to the controversy over some of his delegation members, all have betrayed his obsession with the domestic constituency.
While a visit to the Golden Temple and an effort to build bridges with the Chief Minister of Punjab Captain Amarinder Singh were well appreciated, he could have avoided the unpleasant controversy over some of the members of his delegation. Similarly, the flip flop over his meeting with Captain Amarinder Singh, who was critical of the alleged Khalistan sympathies of some of Trudeau’s ministers, could have been avoided.
Trudeau is a young and promising leader. He and PM Modi have established a good working relationship. His advisors should have properly briefed Trudeau about the sensitivities involved in the relationship, especially on issues like the Khalistan movement. His government is seen as soft on, and sympathetic to, those elements that wish for India’s dismemberment. Although the concerned leader has subsequently admitted his mistake, the inclusion of people held guilty in hate crimes or who have publicly displayed animosity towards India and Modi in the official delegation was a move that has substantially damaged the visit.
Ideally, India would have expected from Trudeau a categorical rejection of the Khalistan demand. This issue is not about free speech that the Canadians claim to uphold. It is about a democratic government being seen to be siding with forces that want to dismember another democratic country. It may be worthwhile to recall that Trudeau himself had attended events in Canada hosted by elements that were overtly Khalistani and anti-India. In India, he was willing to go only to the extent of stating that the Canadian Government is committed to the unity of India. Many in India see it as mere lip service.
Having said that, we also have to think coolly about the entire episode. Canada is not Pakistan. While the Trudeau government’s tacit support for pro-Khalistan elements in the name of free speech cannot be justified, the way forward should be greater engagement with that government to sensitise it to the issues of concern. It is also worthwhile to engage with the Conservatives and the New Democrats, including its leader Jagmeet Singh and drive home what Prime Minister Modi had said with Trudeau by his side last week in Delhi: “Terrorism is a threat to countries like ours, and to fight these elements, it is important for us to come together”.
A strong message has been conveyed to Trudeau’s government during his India visit. It should be followed up with strong diplomatic engagement. The forthcoming visit of the Indian Foreign Minister would help achieve what we missed achieving during Trudeau’s visit last week. “Engage to contain”, Sun Tzu said. Our engagement with the Canadian government should help contain forces inimical to our interests.
(The article was originally published in Indian Express on March 1, 2018. Views expressed are personal)