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Trudeau’s in India to win Indo-Canadian votes

By Bhupinder S. Liddar      

Previous and current prime ministers, provincial premiers, and political party leaders have beaten the path to India for the same reason, often under the guise of trade missions.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a Diwali celebration at John A. Macdonald Building on Oct. 16. Diwali is a religious celebration marked throughout India. Mr. Trudeau is on a trip to the south Asian nation Feb. 17 to 23. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit this week to India seems to be part of a game plan to garner Indo-Canadian votes, for one can find no other credible reason for the weeklong visit. Canada is home to more than one million people of Indian heritage, or 3.6 per cent of the population. India is also the second largest source of immigrants to Canada, with 40,000 coming in 2016.

In fairness to Trudeau, he is not the first Canadian politician to be tempted by the lure of Indo-Canadian votes. Previous and current prime ministers, provincial premiers, and political party leaders have beaten the path to India for the same reason, often under the guise of trade missions. However, Canada’s $8-billion worth of yearly merchandise trade with India is miniscule—worth only one week of Canada’s trade with the United States.

Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper, tried and failed to negotiate a Canada-India free trade agreement. In November 2010, then-trade minister Peter Van Loan launched free trade negotiations with much fanfare in New Delhi. His successor, Ed Fast, following Harper’s visit to India in 2012, and Indian-origin minister Bal Gosal held regular discussions with Indo-Canadian businesspeople in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal to provide updates on the talks. It was a blatant gesture to appease the Indo-Canadian vote. Ultimately, after almost a decade of discussions, nothing was delivered. Incidentally, in the press release outlining Trudeau trip there is no mention of a free trade agreement.

While India’s seven per cent growth rate looks impressive, there are far too many obstacles ranging from red tape, to an uncooperative bureaucracy, and corruption to make it formidable for Canadian businesses to negotiate or operate smoothly in India. In the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business ranking in the last couple years, India has ranked in 130th and 100th place. These rankings are based on a country’s performance in several areas, like starting a business, getting construction permits, getting electricity, contract enforcement, etc.

Canada is poised to help India’s energy security aspirations, but despite various trade missions to India over the last two decades, India remains reluctant to tap into Canada’s massive natural gas resources.

Given the large proportion of Sikhs in the Indo-Canadian population, a visit to Amritsar—a holy place for Sikhs and home to their Golden Temple—is essential. Prime minister Jean Chrétien was the first Canadian prime minister to visit Amritsar. Chrétien opened the first Canadian consulate office in India, in Chandigarh, in the early 2000s and I accompanied him as the first Canadian consul general appointee there.

Prime minister Paul Martin visited India in January 2005. During Martin’s visit to India there was work done on creating the G20, made up of developing and developed economies, to discuss global issues. The then-prime minister of India was invited to visit Canada but it did not transpire because of Martin’s short-lived government.

Reform Party leader Preston Manning was lured to visit Amritsar in 1998, at the urging of newly minted Indian-origin Sikh MP Gurmant Singh Grewal.

Former premier Christy Clark of British Columbia and Premier Kathleen Wynne of Ontario have also led business delegations to India, more for political consumption than economic benefits.

“Canada and India share a special bond, and are linked be tremendous people-to-people connections. The more than one million Canadians of India origin make the relationship between our two countries a truly special one,” according to Trudeau. Immigration, though not mentioned officially or openly, is another area of much interest to the Indo-Canadian community. In 2015, India was also second largest source of international students for Canadian universities and colleges.

However, not all Indo-Canadians are enthused by the Trudeau visit. While Sikhs in Canada are moved by the prime minister’s gesture to visit their holy shrine, the Golden Temple, in Amritsar, Punjab, many are not enamoured by politicians’ visits to India, as a large number of Sikhs came as refugees from India following the 1984 Sikh riots in Delhi, in which thousands were killed, following prime minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh body guards. The assassination was in revenge for Gandhi’s order for the army to attack the Golden Temple and 17 other places of Sikh worship on a day of religious celebration resulting in the deaths of countless innocent worshippers coming to the temple that day.

Hence, other than hoping to garner Indo-Canadian votes, there is not much to be gained by Trudeau’s India visit, except, of course, to provide refuge for the prime minister from Ottawa’s deep freeze.

Bhupinder S. Liddar, is a former Canadian diplomat, and was appointed Canada’s first consul general in Chandigarh, in October 2004. He can be contacted at bsliddar@hotmail.com.

The Hill Times

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