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Trudeau’s India Visit: Mending Broken Fences?

 5 min read / 

Justin Trudeau became known globally for carrying the Canadian Prime Ministership with a suave charisma that few in his position have been able to replicate. His brand of discerning – the outspoken support of feminism, the open acceptance of diversity and the refreshingly modern attitude towards climate change – shone against the vulgarity of Trump. As time passes, however, he has begun facing flak for being an all-talk poster boy, supported by an extremely strong PR team, seeing as he never gives up the chance for a photo-op.

Trudeau started off his visit to India on Saturday but was not, to the surprise of many, greeted by Indian Prime Minister Modi upon his arrival. Instead, a meeting between the two counterparts was arranged for Friday, the last day of the visit. Moreover, in the five-day tour across India, Trudeau did not once have an official meeting with any heads of state. Oddly enough, Conservative MP Pierre Pollievre tweeted ‘I’d like to wish the Prime Minister and his family another wonderful vacation.’ In India in the 80s, the protocol was that both the Prime Minister and the President would receive the visiting dignitaries at the airport. For security reasons, however, it was decided that it was best to meet guests in the foyer of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Unfortunately, because PM Modi breaks protocol often, it is when he doesn’t that people begin to question the situation.

The Indian public was not too happy to see the tour progress. It was bemusing to watch Trudeau and his family get photo after photo dressed to the hilt in clothes fit only for a Bollywood movie. It all seemed unnecessarily over-the-top: mawkish and choreographed. When interviewed, he said:

“I’ve long been known to wear traditional clothes to a broad range of events in different communities in Canada and elsewhere. The reaction of people on whether I’m wearing traditional clothing or suit and tie is extremely encouraging in Indo-Canadian friendship.”

The Khalistan issue rose once again between Indo-Canadian relations as Trudeau’s wife, Sophie, was photographed with Jaspal Atwal – a pro-Khalistan activist who was convicted of attempted murder – at a dinner in Mumbai. It was further revealed that Atwal was invited to the official dinner due to being held at the Canadian High Commission in Delhi. The invitation was rescinded in light of this outrage. In subsequent interviews, when asked about the incident, Trudeau insisted that it was an accident and that an MP had taken responsibility for it. Although PM Modi did not address the issue directly, at the press conference, he stated:

“There should be no space for those who seek to divide communities and promote separatism. We will not tolerate those who challenge unity and integrity of our countries.”

Despite the controversies, the crucial part of this trip was Trudeau’s bilateral talks with Modi which could signal the beginning or the end of the seemingly deteriorating relations between the two countries. There has been an attempt to mend the fences on both sides despite nuisances like the Khalistan issue. This, however, does not mean the Indian government values Trudeau’s visit any less as insinuated. At the same time, it is important to understand that the relations between China and India, for instance, are more important and thus it is understandable why the PM broke protocol. The total trade for each country with the other is less than one percent of total trade, and the main link between the two countries is the Indian diaspora in Canada.

Therefore, it is important to note that, although downplayed by politicians on both sides, there has been a reliability issue with the Canadian PM and his reaction regarding the Khalistan issue. In the past, he has had a connection with sympathisers of the issue. And India is still upset over the botching of the Air India bombing investigation (1985). There has been no strict condemning of the Khalistan cause from the Canadian government that India seeks. The concern is that Sikh-Canadian politicians are not upfront about where their sympathies lie: they have been known to be supportive of the separatist movement. Punjab Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh, has, on several occasions, accused Trudeau’s minister of having separatist tendencies.

It is well known that the Khalistan issue has been looming over the Indo-Canada relations. Yet Trudeau has been wanting to make the trip for a long time. India, on the other hand, has not been too keen. Initially, he was expected on the 26th of January for the Republic Day Parade. There was a huge mismatch between the Canadian expectation of this trip and what India has been willing to provide. While the Indian government had wanted official talks before such a casual visit, the Canadians were expecting their Prime Minister to be accompanied by PM Modi on his visit to Gujarat. India declined and hence the result was a strange trip with Trudeau traipsing around India unaccompanied, possibly catering to the diaspora back home. This visit has seen him coming off as a little desperate and too enthusiastic, whereas India seems to have the upper hand in this foreign relation.

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