Why Justin Trudeau gets India wrong

The Prime Minister’s insistence on viewing India through a narrow lens of domestic diaspora politics hamstrings what should be a productive relationship

By: /
16 December, 2020
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau along with his wife Sophie Gregoire pay their respects at the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, on February 21, 2018. Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a virtual discussion with several members of his cabinet who have family connections to Canada and expressed concern about the treatment of Indigenous Canadians demonstrating against the construction of oil pipelines in Western Canada. “India,” Modi assured listeners on the call, “will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protest.”

Of course, none of this really happened. But a version of the reverse did. On November 30, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with at least three members of his cabinet — Bardish Chagger, Navdeep Bains and Harjit Sajjan — alongside several MPs and ordinary Canadians, took part in an online celebration to commemorate Guru Nanak Dev Ji Gurpura, the birth of the first Sikh guru, Guru Nanak.

On the virtual call, Trudeau raised the issue of ongoing protests over agricultural reforms by Indian farmers, many from the state of Punjab, where a majority of residents belong to the Sikh faith. Police have confronted protesters with water cannons, tear gas and swinging batons.

“This situation is concerning, and we’re all very worried about family and friends. I know that’s the reality for many of you,” Trudeau said, adding: “Canada will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protest.” He said Canada had reached out directly to Indian authorities to highlight these concerns.

Besides Trudeau, Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh have issued remarks and tweets defending the farmers’ right to protest peacefully, while Defence Minister Sajjan tweeted in support of his constituents’ family members who, in his eyes, were being “brutalized” in India.

The official Indian response has been sharp. Without naming Trudeau, a statement issued by the foreign ministry condemned “ill-informed comments by some Canadian leaders relating to farmers in India” and admonished Canadian leaders, including the Canadian prime minister, to ensure “diplomatic conversations are not misrepresented for political purposes.” Canada’s high commissioner to India was also summoned for a dressing down.

“Canadian politicians weighing in on the farmer protests seem oblivious to the politics around them and how these impact Canadian interests.”

It is noteworthy that Canadian politicians weighing in on the farmer protests seem oblivious to the politics around them and how these impact Canadian interests — namely freer agricultural markets in India that can absorb more Canadian goods. The protests in the states of Punjab and Haryana were triggered by the Modi government’s resolve to transform India’s agricultural sector, the most inefficient part of the Indian economy, by allowing private firms more access to small farmers and their output.

In effect, the proposed bills fuelling the standoff will whittle away the network of middlemen and wholesalers who connect Indian farmers, particularly those producing rice and wheat, to the market. Besides eliminating these constraints that generate and perpetuate inefficiencies, New Delhi’s broader objective is to more fully extricate the Indian state from agriculture by allowing more contract farming, reducing government procurement, eliminating restrictions on food storage and creating new agricultural markets where food can be traded. Farmers driving the protests in Punjab fear these reforms will propel a large-scale exit of the Indian state from food production and the entry of agriculture businesses that operate on different conditions and incentives and will be far less amenable to their interests than New Delhi has been.

Indeed, what Modi is attempting to engineer through these laws is a dramatic restructuring of a sector that has long survived and subsisted on state support. Proposed reforms favour smaller farmers across India compared to richer farmers in Punjab and Haryana, who receive heavy subsidies while providing far less output. Protests are the last gasp effort by farmers in Punjab to prevent and block changes that fundamentally alter the status quo. The political backlash is unsurprising given the stakes for affluent farmers who will have to subject themselves to the market’s logic.

Ironically, Canadian trade officials have, in the past, criticized India for subsidizing farmers or guaranteeing minimum prices for their produce, the very thing proposed reforms would remove. Reforms could make India’s agricultural sector more-market oriented, more competitive, more efficient, more climate-friendly and more conducive for Canadian commodities like pulses that are affected by support New Delhi gives Indian farmers. Quotas and subsidies have a distortionary effect on Canadian exporters. The proposed reforms should enhance market transparency and access, a boon for foreign importers. All these outcomes would serve Canada’s interests, and should therefore be reflected in Canadian foreign policy toward India. But they are not. 

They are not, because the Canadian government does not have a strategy to engage and work with India — a strategy that can serve as a framework steering policymaking across several issues from security to energy, agriculture, trade and technology. The lack of a strategy means that policy is influenced by narrow domestic political interests in ways that exact wider diplomatic costs — in this case by damaging relations between Ottawa and New Delhi. Unsurprisingly, Trudeau’s comments have unleashed a torrent of criticism in India against Trudeau and Ottawa.

Trudeau appears eager to wade into Punjab’s politics to curry favour with the politically influential Sikh community in Canada. By doing so, he ignores competing domestic groups and interests that seek closer engagement with India as a rising power with a burgeoning market in a rapidly integrating Asia.

Both Canada and India have a reasonably promising economic relationship characterized by trade in goods and increased investments flowing from Canada to India. Energy is a crucial plank for current and future cooperation, given India’s endless energy appetite. Agriculture connects India to different parts of Canada, especially the Prairies, because of India’s need to import food. Opportunities abound in information and communication technologies. In 2018, India sent more international students to Canada than did any other country. Canada and India also share security concerns related to China. Undeniably, Canada and India share a set of common interests that could catalyze and cement bilateral relations yet fall prey to this government’s inability to craft a strategic partnership with India and avoids public spats.

That said, India has also complicated its bilateral ties with Canada. Prominent Liberals, like former Trudeau advisor Gerald Butts, have accused Modi’s government of subterfuge during Trudeau’s visit, allowing for mishaps that could embarrass and hurt Trudeau domestically. Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism has increasingly found resonance in Canada through groups and individuals allegedly aided by India’s intelligence agencies; documents obtained by Global News earlier this year reveal that Canadian security officials identified individuals who were asked to influence Canadian politicians to support positions that advanced India’s interests. Presumably, some of these operations could have been aimed at blunting the influence of groups that advocate for a separate Sikh-majority state in India. It is unclear how successful these efforts have been; nonetheless, it is clear that the nationalist agenda and rhetoric of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, often spread through social media, is a bad diplomatic lubricant when it comes to relations with a multi-ethnic democracy like Canada.

There’s sufficient blame, in other words, for both Ottawa and New Delhi. Canada, for its part, needs to decide what it wants out of the relationship. Unless a thoughtful strategy is developed that is shaped by Canadian interests instead of narrow domestic political calculations, Ottawa will find itself repeatedly falling in and out of tiffs with New Delhi, delaying the formation of what should be a mutually beneficial partnership. 

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