The day before he is scheduled to return home from India, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally got to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two leaders sought to bring an upbeat conclusion to a journey that became a diplomatic nightmare for Canada. Modi greeted Trudeau with a hug, then sat down for bilateral talks.
Trudeau’s visit to India went so awry that there was speculation Modi might actually refuse to meet with him, although officials maintained the meeting was always on the books and was held exactly as planned.
The Canadian prime minister’s trip began with Modi apparently snubbing him at the airport to express displeasure at the Trudeau administration’s relationship with Sikh separatists in India, perked up with Trudeau’s announcement that Indian businesses would invest a billion dollars in Canada, trended downward when Trudeau was obliged to correct that statement and admit Indians were only investing $250 million in Canada, and then went completely off the rails when a convicted Sikh terrorist was invited to a dinner reception with Trudeau.
As the week went on, Indian observers began noticing that Modi, who is highly active on social media, seemed to be keeping his distance from Trudeau online, and had not yet favored him with one of his famous bear hugs. The hug finally happened on Friday, after which the two leaders sat down for wide-ranging talks and signed six agreements, including one on energy cooperation.
Indo-Canadian cooperation against terrorism was also on the agenda, and Modi pointedly alluded to the Sikh separatism issue during a joint appearance with Trudeau afterward.
“There should not be space for those who misuse religion for political motives and promote separatism. We will not tolerate those who challenge unity and integrity of our countries,” the Indian prime minister said.
Trudeau said he and Modi did not directly discuss the controversial dinner invitation extended to Jaspal Atwal, but he repeated his government’s standard statement on the fiasco, saying, “Like I said yesterday, this individual should have never been invited, and the MP responsible has taken responsibility.”
“I would be having a conversation with the MP in Canada,” Trudeau added, well and truly throwing British Columbia MP Randeep Sarai under the bus.
Some Canadian officials sought to mitigate the embarrassment to Sarai and the Canadian security apparatus by gingerly pointing out that India removed Atwal from its famously tough travel blacklist several months ago, suggesting that Modi’s government has accepted that Atwal’s “views on the issue of an independent Khalist have evolved.” These officials also suggested it is not realistic to expect Canadian security officials to vet every guest invited to an event on foreign soil.
“The fact that Atwal’s name was dropped from an Indian government blacklist only partially explains how Atwal got a visa to travel to India,” the Toronto Star observed on Thursday. “It doesn’t explain how he was able to leave Canada, whether he is—or ever was—on any Canadian ‘no-fly’ list. Canadian officials would not discuss that either, saying only the threshold to be included is ‘very high’ and a criminal conviction some 30 years ago might not necessarily place someone on that list.”
The embarrassment continued on Friday with revelations that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was specifically warned about Atwal a week ago, and told his presence at events in India would be “an embarrassment for the prime minister.” It might not be possible for MP Sarai to take the entire hit for Trudeau, no matter how hard he tries.
Modi’s government, perhaps sensitive to its domestic political situation as well as its relationship with an important trading partner, seems eager to end Trudeau’s visit on a high note and downplay the severity of the Sikh separatist unpleasantness. Criticism of Trudeau from his home soil has not subsided, as CTV News chronicles:
The incident raises questions about the ability of Trudeau’s office to plan and execute a foreign trip, said David Mulroney, a career public servant who served as a foreign policy adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper.
“We shouldn’t be sending the prime minister into situations that are uncertain and where the visit is consumed by the drama of whether something that should have been predictable happens or not. That’s happening too much.”
Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, recalled Trudeau’s December trip to the People’s Republic, where he faced criticism for being unable to announce the start of formal free trade talks.
All of it is a symptom of something more serious: a failure to think seriously about our interests in the world, said Mulroney.
“We’re relying too much on how photogenic and how popular we think the prime minister is, and it’s beginning to backfire on us.”
Trudeau’s turbulent trip to India has drawn criticism from the Conservatives and raised eyebrows internationally.
Trudeau has also been criticized for ostentatiously wearing traditional Indian clothing—by everyone from Canadians worried about “cultural appropriation” to Indians who think he just looked silly—and for spending more time on sightseeing and photo ops than serious business. The people of India were not terribly impressed with Trudeau’s dancing skills, either.
“As for what ‘the work, achievements and objectives’ of this cavalcade of embarrassment might amount to, it would have been better, in hindsight, if Trudeau had gone to India alone, invited himself to dinner with Modi, and thrown up in his lap,” sneered the prime minister’s hometown paper, the Ottawa Citizen, alluding to U.S. President George H.W. Bush vomiting upon the prime minister of Japan in 1992.
For good measure, the Ottawa Citizen threw in Prince Philip asking Australian aboriginals if they were still in the habit of throwing spears at each other in 2002 and Libyan madman Moammar Qaddafi camping out in giant Bedouin tents when he traveled abroad.
“Trudeau has not done anything quite that weird,” the Ottawa paper conceded. “But nobody seems quite sure why Trudeau is travelling around India with his wife and his children and an entourage of cabinet ministers and MPs and various officials and a celebrity chef from Vancouver.”