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The troubles facing Justin Trudeau on his first state visit to India

The prime minister needs to grow a stalled trade relationship and also assuage India’s security concerns about its diaspora in Canada
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2018
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2018 (Photo: Paul Chiasson/CP)

On Nov. 8, 2017, a department within India’s finance ministry put out a notification that added a single row to a table in another government document. The hurt caused by that small change would be felt most deeply halfway around the world, in the fields and silos of Saskatchewan.

The new row established a 50 per cent tariff on the import into India of yellow peas, commonly used as a cheap substitute in gram flour, or at it’s known locally, besan, a staple ingredient in South Asian cuisines. Many of the fields in which they grow can be found at the southern end of Canada’s prairie provinces. During the 2016–2017 cycle, Canada exported 2.02 million tonnes of yellow peas to India, the world’s largest market for such crops.

So when India imposed its duty with immediate effect, it had an impact on the value of the cargo of a lot of ships floating across the oceans filled to the brim with a lot of the Prairies’ finest product. “There was about a hundred thousand tons of peas that were enroute to India at the time,” says Brennan Turner, the son of a Saskatchewan farming family and CEO of FarmLead, an Ottawa-headquartered crop marketplace platform.

A duty had been expected, but not such a high one and certainly not so suddenly. A lot of that crop was eventually diverted to China and Pakistan, at discount prices. The tariff remains in place, despite the Canadian government expressing its disappointment. Its imposition and effects illustrate some important things about the Canada-India bilateral relationship: Everything about India is at a scale that makes Canada look like a rounding error, it does not always behave in predictable ways and there is not a whole lot we can do about it.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes his first state visit to India this month. His challenge, depending on whom you ask, is to kickstart an idling bilateral relationship or keep an accelerating one on course. He will hope to grow a still-small trade relationship and have to assuage India’s security concerns about its diaspora in Canada.

And he must choose whether to address or ignore a series of low-level irritants between the two countries. All this in service of accessing an explosive-growth market and retaining the favour of one of Canada’s largest immigrant communities.

Trudeau’s state visit marks the fourth such drop-in by one or other country’s prime minister in the last decade. That’s a considerable pace, and a positive sign according to India’s former representative in Ottawa. Prime ministerial trips send “a very clear message to other ministers, the bureaucracy, and business that ‘We want this relationship to go forward,’” says Shashishekhar Gavai, the high commissioner to Canada from 2008 to 2012.

Gavai arrived in Ottawa just after Trudeau, and says the then-MP always struck him a strong supporter of bilateral ties. “He used to attend almost every Indian function, and he used to make it a point to dress in ethnic wear, to be very much part of the crowd,” Gavai recalls. Trudeau and Modi, both charismatic leaders, will “establish a very good chemistry,” he predicts.

Economic ties are one declared focus of the trip, and Canada’s prime minister is set to speak at events hosted by the Canada-India Business Council (C-IBC) in Mumbai and New Delhi in the latter half. “We have leading business organizations in India take an interest on this visit, in a way that I have not seen before,” says Kasi Rao, CEO of C-IBC and a longtime consultant and advisor on the bilateral relationship.

Canada and India did $8.3 billion in merchandise trade in 2017, per Statistics Canada data—the equivalent of a work week across the U.S.-Canada border. That number fails to capture some Canadian exports, which flow through other countries before reaching India. The Canadian government has expanded its trade commissioner service in India in recent years, and the two sides have been negotiating a free trade agreement since 2010, and an investment protection treaty since 2004, though neither will be signed during this visit.

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But it is clear that “this bilateral relationship has underperformed,” says Vivek Dehejia, an associate professor of economics at Carleton University and fellow at Mumbai-based think-tank the IDFC Institute. “It’s simply not achieved its potential given the size of the diaspora.”

Growing the bilateral relationship is made more complicated by India’s current global popularity. Modi rode to power on a wave of economic aspiration, and governments around the world are keen to participate in the market opportunities that promises. Dehejia says the country’s diplomats are “focused on the big fish” like the U.S., China and Russia, as well as regional rival Pakistan. Canada is a minnow by contrast.

That makes growing the bilateral relationship harder, and it is not clear in any case that the two government’s interests are currently aligned. Dehejia recalls a more natural affinity between Modi and Harper. “They see themselves as outsiders who have sort of stormed the bastion,” he says, noting that Harper was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Modi on his electoral victory in 2014. The Conservatives were more commercially-driven, whereas Trudeau’s interest might lie closer to home. “The Liberal government is very mindful of its diaspora constituency,” Dehejia says. “They were an important voting block that got these guys into power.” He expects to see some “minor deals” struck to show that the meetings were productive.

Trudeau has previously jokingly pointed out that there are more Sikh members of his cabinet than Modi’s. The political prowess of the diaspora is certainly not lost on those in India. The Times of India ran the news of Trudeau’s 2015 electoral triumph under the headline “Liberals sweep Canada polls riding on Punjabi shoulders.” That may be something of an overstatement—when the new government took office, 19 of the 184 Liberal MPs were of Indian origin, and 17 of those were from the Punjabi community, a sizeable but hardly overwhelming number.

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If the visit is at least partly an exercise in optics for the diaspora, then the prime minister’s itinerary will provide plenty of photo ops. In addition to Mumbai and New Delhi, Trudeau will visit Agra, where the Taj Mahal is; Amritsar, the location of the Golden Temple; and Ahmedabad, in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, which also has a significant diaspora in Canada.

Dr. Anita Singh, who studies the bilateral relationship, says governments and parties often do not understand the interests and views of Canadians of Indian origin. “There’s a big part of the [Indian] diaspora [in Canada] that’s also not interested in pursuing better relations,” she says. She notes that some members of the Sikh community continue to push for redress for the 1984 anti-Sikh violence that killed thousands in New Delhi. (While her last name is common in the Sikh community, Singh herself is not Sikh). Muslim Indians, meanwhile, have been subjected to increasing communal violence under BJP rule, and the Tamil community, both of Sri Lankan and Indian origin, also has a complicated relationship with India.

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During his three-day 2015 visit to Canada, Modi made a speech before a crowd of thousands, mainly Canadians of Indian origin, at Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum. Singh says that in that address and others during the trip, Modi focused primarily on his own domestic policies, efforts to improve India’s economic place in the world, and past achievements as chief minister of Gujarat. The Indian prime minister “showed almost a disinterest in actually making a case for Canada-India relations,” focusing instead on appealing to the diaspora, says Singh. Modi’s public comments during the trip were often made in Hindi.

Singh says that Modi is understood to have also taken personal issue with having been “persona non grata in Canada for a really long time.” Before becoming prime minister, he had been denied a Canadian visa—as he was by the U.S.—over his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots that killed at least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the crowd at an event in Toronto during his 2015 visit to Canada
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the crowd at an event in Toronto during his 2015 visit to Canada. (Photo: Chris Young/CP)

Eleven members of Trudeau’s cabinet have visited India over the last two years, including all four ministers of Indian origin, and some on more than one occasion. “The opportunity in front of us is huge,” Minister of International Trade François-Philippe Champagne told an Indian newspaper while in New Delhi on a trade mission in November. “We want to engage.”

Trudeau’s trip is supposed to be a triumphant twelfth. But even as its ministers have flocked eastwards, Canada’s political and diplomatic reputation has suffered on the Indian side. A series of low-level diplomatic, commercial and political incidents in Canada involving Indian citizens or interests have made headlines in the Indian press, but gone largely unnoticed here.

A Hindustan Times (HT) report on a call between the two prime ministers in June last year claimed that “plenty of frost has formed in the relationship in recent months.” The chill was caused in part by the passage in April 2017 of a private member’s motion advanced by a Liberal MPP in the Ontario legislature that labelled the 1984 violence against Sikhs a “genocide.” An HT report quoted an unnamed Indian official complaining that Trudeau and his team “can’t manage their own party.”

The reaction is notable, even if it displays a misunderstanding of Canadian political structures. The Ontario and federal Liberals are different entities, while the BJP is far more integrated at the state and national level.

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Perceived support among members of the Sikh community for the establishment of a separate Sikh state called Khalistan has been an issue in the bilateral relationship for decades.

The Ontario motion made no mention of Khalistan, but was linked to other concerns about a possible resurgence of the movement in Canada by the Indian press.

Stewart Beck, CEO of the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada and Canada’s high commissioner to India from 2010 to 2014 says that during his time in India and likely still today, the issue is constantly brought up at the bilateral table by Indian officials. “What they’re looking for is some sort of comfort that the [Canadian] government understands that this goes on,” he says. “They don’t want to see symbolic support for it.”

In 2011, Canada apologized to India after military personnel and MPs attended a parade in which some floats were adorned with posters of men some in the Sikh community consider to be martyrs, but others and the Indian government considers radicals. Beck and Gavai both say there has been an increased awareness of India’s concern over the Khalistan issue on the Canadian side in the recent past.

Last May, an Indian citizen was barred from entering Canada. According to a letter issued to the individual, who claims he had a valid visa, at Vancouver airport, the denial was a result of his service as an officer in India’s central police force, which the document said had “committed widespread and systematic human rights abuses.” The Indian press read that reasoning as a “startling condemnation of India.” The Canadian high commission in New Delhi insisted the document contained generic language, and did not reflect the government’s position towards India.

The events in Vancouver followed an earlier diplomatic incident. In 2010, several Indian officers reported being denied visas on the grounds of their service in police and armed forces. Gavai said that while his government recognized that the decisions were made on the basis of Canadian law and were not specific to India, the information requirements to obtain immigration documents for former servicemen were seen as intrusive. “This is classified [and] sensitive information, and holding back visas on these grounds, it’s an irritant for the relationship,” he said, though he insists any bilateral disruption was minor and recalls the individual cases being resolved.

Beck, who arrived in India shortly after the 2010 incident, says “it took us a while to get out from underneath it.” He recalls giving a talk at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington in southern India, which often hosts and trains officers from other countries, and having to answer questions about Canadian visa policies for security personnel. “This was like two years later.”

At least one business operating in Canada has also caused some consternation in India recently. In January 2017, Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, an active participant on Twitter, took exception to the sale on Amazon’s Canadian site of door mats bearing the Indian flag. In a series of missives, she demanded an “unconditional apology,” threatened to cancel the visas of company employees and not issue any new ones, and ordered the Indian high commission in Ottawa to intervene. The offending furnishings were withdrawn. Months later, a BJP spokesperson objected to the presence on the same site of an Indian flag wall sticker that excluded disputed areas of Kashmir.

None of the former diplomats or India watchers, whether they are bullish on the overall bilateral relationship or not, consider these incidents and the considerable coverage they received in India, to be major impediments.

Dehejia says these irritants are not themselves things that India’s foreign ministry are “especially fussed about,” but instead reflect a lull in relations overall. “Given that there’s not much that’s happening, that’s what lands on your desk, and what the media also picks up on.”

The pulse tariffs similarly do not seem to have muted the positive noises coming out of the two governments. India has historically used a mix of tariffs and pest control rules to regulate its domestic pulse markets. In addition to the duties imposed at the end of last year, Canadian exporters have also had to contend with the resurfacing of a longstanding issue around the fumigation of shipments.

Long-term, India’s appetite for pulses will continue to grow, and that’s good for the industry in Canada says Murad Al-Katib, CEO of Regina-based agricultural processing and trading firm AGT Foods & Ingredients. “At the end of the day, people have to eat, and it’s a protein business.”

Diplomatic and policy hurdles notwithstanding, it is clear that the floor under the bilateral relationship continues to rise. Outside the halls of government, ties between the two countries continue to grow. More and more Indian students are enrolling at Canadian colleges and universities, and those institutions are forming research partnerships with their Indian equivalents.

Canadian institutional investors are “perhaps next only to the Japanese,” says Rao, despite the investor protection agreement remaining unfinished. “If the Canada-India of the 1950s was built on aid and development, [then] today [it’s] being built on trade and investment, ideas and innovation,” Rao says.

That should give Trudeau and Modi plenty to celebrate on this visit, even if the Canadian prime minister may leave with the potential of India-Canada relations still mostly unrealized.