Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to India was highly anticipated. As someone who is hailed as a progressive hero and defender of progressive values, his visit might come as a breath of fresh air at a time when communal violence and religious tensions seem high in India.Back home, his popularity coming into office was high; assembling a diverse cabinet that reflected the country’s many cultures and ethnicities. Over time though, his image has taken a bit of a hit. On the world stage, he’s looked at differently. He’s enjoyed favorable media coverage for his views on feminism, equality and climate change among other issues.
The two world leaders did finally meet on Friday where they talked about combating terrorism following a bilateral meeting. There was speculation as to why he was given the cold shoulder. Mia Rabson in the National Post writes on the culmination of Trudeau’s visit calling the trip troubled –
Is it just me or is this choreographed cuteness all just a bit much now? Also FYI we Indians don’t dress like this every day sir, not even in Bollywood. pic.twitter.com/xqAqfPnRoZ— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) February 21, 2018
“Among the delegation from Canada, there was a sense of relief that the trip was not entirely a write off, with positive coverage in the Indian press about Trudeau’s meeting Friday with Prime Minister Narendra Modi”. The diplomatic gaffe, to say the least had to do with the invitation of Jaspal Atwal to a reception. Jaspal was a Sikh separatist part of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), whose leader Talwinder Parmar, bombed an Air India flight in 1985, killing 331 people. His invitation was withdrawn after his identity came to be known. “The lingering feeling that this trip was not a success continues — one Indian foreign affairs writer called it a total disaster — but in his final event in New Delhi Saturday afternoon Trudeau resumed his rock star status”. On his final day, he attended the United Nations Young Changemakers Conclave at Indira Gandhi stadium where he was welcomed by 5000 students. He also took part in a ball hockey game at the Canadian High Commission with India’s national women’s ice hockey team. One way to look at Trudeau’s visit is to see it as a complete disaster. Putting it in context, journalist and author Terry Glavin, in a column for the National Post states that the trip could have been worse – “It is worth keeping in mind that Trudeau didn’t have much else to do in India that was more important than disabusing everyone of the misapprehension that Canada was becoming a safe haven for Khalistani whackjobs again”. Trudeau is scheduled to meet with the MP who put Jaspal’s name on the invitation list for the reception. Being convicted of attempted murder, Jaspal was once referred to as a terrorist by a Canadian judge. As a result of the conviction, he was placed on a blacklist by the Indian government barring him from entering the country. The liberal MP in question was Randeep Sarai who issued an apology. “Trudeau’s one big job was to convince Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and everyone in between that Canada’s Liberal government was not backsliding to the ethnic-bloc politics of the 1980s”. The improper vetting of one of the guests was the major talking point for many in the Indian media; rightfully so. This combined with the supposed muted reception of his arrival has put a dampener of sorts as Trudeau touches down in Canada. The Globe and Mail editorial stated that the visit went from bad to worse – “Diplomacy is full of unwritten rules, such as: When visiting a foreign country, do not appear to be cozy with a notorious ex-terrorist who tried to assassinate a cabinet minister from that country. The Trudeau government ignored the rule this week.” “Last spring, the Indian government objected to Mr. Trudeau's appearance at a Sikh community event in Toronto that reportedly featured floats celebrating extremists. The issue has shadowed this trip from the beginning. This makes it all the more stunning that the government should have let this happen.” The trip provided an opportunity for two leaders, who may not be exactly politically aligned, to get some face time on some of the common challenges the two countries face. Diplomacy seemed to take a back seat with Trudeau and family in tow visiting the Taj Mahal as customary, and other famous destinations. The Toronto Star editorial dubbed it a very bad trip which may carry a steep cost – “As India has opened its historically protectionist economy to the world in recent years, Canada has been jockeying to benefit from the emerging opportunities. Bilateral trade between the two countries currently amounts to a fairly meager $8 billion per year”. While the pomp and attire did not garner Trudeau many fans and may have in fact lost some, the real consequence of relations with Sikhs is one that needs to be taken seriously. Any good will that was earned may have been dented with the invitation of the Khalistani extremist. “Trudeau has generally fared well on international trips, deploying his charm and charisma to great effect. But the international-headline-making disaster in India raises old questions about the prime minister’s seriousness”.
More columns by Varun Sukumar