Indian PM Modi did not ‘snub’ the Trudeaus — it’s just that Canada is of secondary importance to India
MUMBAI — I was having breakfast by the pool at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai on Feb. 20 when a swarm of security agents arrived and formed a loose perimeter. A group of three children and some guardians made their way to the water for some morning play. They were Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s kids, my companion told me. The agents paced around us, each step a waste of my hard-earned contributions to the Canada Revenue Agency.
Or so I would read when I later checked to see how the Trudeau trip to India was playing back home.
Vivek Dehejia, an economics professor at Carleton University and a columnist with Mint, India’s best business publication, was in virtually every report and he had little nice to say. “All you can see are the Lonely Planet-style pictures of his family at the Taj Mahal and in Gujarat, but he’s not had a single official event,” he told CNN. (Good line.)
Aaron Wudrick of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation showed up in the Hindustan Times, which has a daily circulation of about one million copies, three times greater than the Globe and Mail. Wudrick was doing what he always does: complaining about the way the government spends its money.
The BBC, which also quoted Dehejia, saw news in the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had decided that he had better things to do than turn up at the airport in the middle of the night to greet the Trudeaus. The Canadian prime minister’s “first official visit to India has not been the headline-grabbing love fest he must be accustomed to on his overseas trips,” reporter Ayeshea Perera declared.
I happen to be on vacation in India, so I thought I would do a little foreign corresponding and let you know that much of what you have been reading has been follow-the-leader reporting at its worst. I don’t know from where the BBC grabs its headlines, but the Trudeau family photo at the Taj Mahal was all over the front pages. On the night of Feb. 19, I started flipping channels and happened on my prime minister doing an “armchair” from Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on India’s most watched business television network. As far as I was concerned, there was no getting away from the guy.
So allow me to me offer a counterpoint to what you’ve been reading. It wasn’t Trudeau who was “snubbed” by Modi, although it does appear New Delhi has some questions about the Liberal Party’s relationship with Punjabi separatists. Rather, the indifference relates to Canada itself. We simply don’t matter enough in Asia for a leader to interrupt her or his late-night routine to greet a foreign dignitary, especially when the rules of protocol state clearly that it’s unnecessary.
Much has been made of Modi’s decision to break protocol to meet other leaders; nothing has been said about how those heads of states run countries that factor in Modi’s foreign policy, which revolves around courting the United States and maintaining influence in South Asia and the Middle East. I read somewhere that India is Canada’s most important ally in Asia. That’s nonsense. Canada is of secondary importance to this country.
Time for a disclosure: I was at the Taj hotel because I had paused my vacation to attend a launch event for a new research program on Canada-India relations organized by Gateway House, a think tank in Mumbai, and the Waterloo, Ont.-based Centre for International Governance Innovation, where I am a senior fellow. That makes me one of those “globalists” that U.S. President Donald Trump’s army of internet trolls so disdains. And it was while talking to various academics at this event that it became obvious that Trudeau’s visit won’t be the dud that it’s being made out to be.
If you have found yourself hating on the Trudeau “family vacation,” ask yourself this question: Three months from now, or even in three weeks, what do you think most Indians are going to remember, the photo of the Trudeaus at the Taj Mahal, or this business about Modi not showing up on the tarmac?
Here’s another one: do you think Canada’s movie business would have been better served by Trudeau scheduling extra time in New Delhi when his celebrity can pull Bollywood superstars such as Shah Rukh Khan to a Canada party in Mumbai? And if you were one of those mocking Trudeau’s choice to wear kurta pajamas at most of his photo-ops, I trust you will save some disdain for the next foreign leader who attempts to connect with us by saying something lame about ice hockey.
This is what soft power looks like. By the time Trudeau leaves India, this country will have been talking about Canada in some way or another for a week. That’s remarkable. There is so much going on here that stories do well to last a full 24 hours.
Wudrick griped that seven days was a long time for a prime minister to stay in one country. But you can’t think of India as one country; it’s more like the European Union, with multiple power centres that have separate languages and histories. My criticism of the Trudeau visit was it wasn’t staying long enough, as his itinerary left out important places such as Bengaluru.
Another disclosure: I know Dehejia, the professor mentioned above, who has featured in at least nine news items on the Trudeau trip. He’s smart and I encourage anyone with an interest in economics, policy and India to read him. And because I’m a fan of his writing, I know Dehejia dislikes Trudeau’s approach to politics and policy. That’s fine. The issue is the press has allowed an ideological foe to frame Trudeau’s entire trip. It’s one of the worst examples of pack reporting I’ve witnessed in my decades in this business.
Dehejia is a worthy voice, but by no means should his be the only one. The previous prime minister, Stephen Harper, promised big things when it came to trade with India. Then he sat back and watched little happen. There’s nothing wrong with seeing if a little soft power might help move things along.
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