Published On: Sun, Feb 25th, 2018

Justin Trudeau’s very bad trip to India may carry a steep cost

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s eight-day state visit to India, which will come to an end on Saturday, may be the least successful foray into that country since the repelled Mongol invasions of the 13th century.

Never mind the snubbing at the airport, where the prime minister was greeted by a lone junior minister. Or that the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, did not welcome his Canadian counterpart via Twitter as is his common practice, announcing instead upon Trudeau’s arrival that he would be tweaking his schedule to make room for a meeting with Donald Trump Jr., then in the country on business.

Never mind that Trudeau mischaracterized a new investment deal between the two countries, overstating by a factor of four the promised Indian investment in Canada. Or the light schedule, which seemed to slate more time for tourism than diplomacy.

Put aside even the prime minister’s decision to dress himself and his family in ornate traditional Indian garb during his signature photo-ops, provoking widespread criticism and ridicule. Such costumes are unusual for world leaders – and for good reason. As many have pointed out, Indians don’t actually dress like that, except maybe on their wedding day.

All of this might have amounted to mere embarrassment had the Canadian delegation, in an act of great carelessness, not invited a convicted attempted murderer and alleged terrorist to an official dinner, deepening emerging and potentially very costly diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says B.C. MP Randeep Sarai is taking “full responsibility” for inviting Jaspal Atwal to receptions in Delhi, India. Atwal was convicted of trying to assassinate an Indian cabinet minister in 1986. (The Canadian Press)

Many observers have suggested that Trudeau’s perceived cold-shouldering may have been the result of growing concern within official India that the Liberal government is too soft on the so-called Khalistani cause, a Sikh separatist movement in Punjab.

Trudeau has not always been careful to dispel this idea. Last year in Toronto, for instance, the prime minister attended an event where separatist flags and portraits of an extremist Sikh leader were prominently displayed. Indian government officials have called on Ottawa to take a harder line on Sikh separatist elements at home, which they believe promote terrorism in India.

Surely one aim of the India trip was to ease these concerns. That’s no doubt why Trudeau met with Amarinder Singh, chief minister of Punjab, who has been an outspoken critic of the Canadian government’s perceived indulgence of Sikh separatists. After their conference on Wednesday, Singh praised Trudeau’s commitment to Indian unity.

But whatever good will was earned by this effort was no doubt at the very least dented by the news on Thursday that Khalistani extremist Jaspal Atwal had been invited to two official receptions during Trudeau’s visit.

Atwal, who was convicted in 1986 of the attempted assassination of an Indian state minister, attended an event on Tuesday, where he was photographed alongside Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, the PM’s wife, and Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi. The second invitation was rescinded when it was discovered who Atwal was.

It turns out this unwelcome addition to the guest list was made by British Columbia MP Randeep Sarai, who issued an apology on Thursday. Trudeau also acknowledged the mistake. Asked how this was allowed to happen, the Prime Minister’s Office said it does not comment on matters relating to the PM’s security. But someone will have to explain and be held to account for this blunder.

After all, the stakes are high. 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 meagre $ 8 billion per year. Trudeau has rightly said “there’s a lot of room to grow” in this respect. This trip, with its blunders and scandals, is pretty much the opposite of how to achieve that growth.

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. Blundering around in his overly formal Indian outfits, inviting an alleged terrorist to dinner, Trudeau made of this important trip a bad – and potentially rather costly – joke.

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Justin Trudeau’s very bad trip to India may carry a steep cost