If Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is battling charges of being seen with a controversial businessman in Davos, his Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau is fighting off allegations of inviting a controversial Indian to break bread with him. Nirav Modi is a diamond merchant accused of swindling an astronomical sum of over Rs 11,000 crores from a public sector bank. Some two years ago, a complaint was sent to Prime Minister’s Office about the bank fraud and it was acknowledged. During Modi’s recent visit to Davos, the External Affairs Ministry released a photograph of a CEO delegation with Prime Minister Modi which prominently showed Nirav Modi in the frame. The controversial diamond merchant was apparently part of the Indian delegation and among the few who had the privilege of being photographed with the Indian Prime Minister at the World Economic Forum summit last month.
This has kicked up a storm and the Indian government is busy doing damage control. Several ministers have claimed that Nirav Modi was not part of the delegation and was there on his own. This does not cut ice because his presence with the Prime Minister is not possible without clearance at the highest level. Nobody, it is well known, can access the Indian Prime Minister given the high level security around him. All names and persons have to be cleared by the Prime Minister’s Office and their identities established before they can be allowed near the Prime Minister. Therefore, the photobombing that the government is now claiming does not sell.
Equally, Prime Minister Modi’s counterpart, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is battling a controversy over an invitation to a convict and Khalistan terrorist Jaspal Atwal. Apart from being photographed with Trudeau’s wife, Sophie, at a private even in Mumbai, Atwal was part of the guest list of the Canadian High Commission’s dinner thrown in honour of visiting Prime Minister to India. Questions like Mister Trudeau why did you invite a Khalistani terrorist for a reception were loud enough for Trudeau to back off and move in to have the invitation withdrawn.
Atwal is convicted of attempted murder and is former member of a banned Sikh extremist organization. Atwal had targeted an Indian state Cabinet minister when he visited Vancouver Island. He was accused of shooting at him.
This time around Atwal was invited to two official events organized for Trudeau during his India visit. There was an uproar and the Canadian High Commission cancelled Atwal’s invite explaining that inviting him was an “oversight”. Things took such a turn that Trudeau broke his silence and said that “we take this situation very seriously”.
As if Atwal was not enough, there was another: journalist Manvir Singh Saini who has accompanied Trudeau to India. Saini is anti-Modi given that when Modi visited Canada in 2015 he was seen holding banners that read “Modi is a terrorist” and “Modi you are not welcome in Canada”.
Atwal and Saini’s inclusion in Trudeau’s delegation seems to be the last straw. There is a chill that, in any case, surrounds Trudeau’s India visit. There is speculation of India’s snub to Trudeau due his alleged acceptance of Sikh separatist groups despite assurances to the contrary.
Trudeau’s week long visit to India has created enough controversy. For one it is a bit too long especially when the host, in this case India, is lukewarm.
From the minute the Canadian Prime Minister set foot on Indian soil there were signs of a cold shoulder being given to him. Till Friday when he met the Indian Prime Minister, he seemed to be somewhat on his own: either visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra or the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
His work calendar looked lean and he came across as a tourist enjoying the beauty of India with his family rather than a Prime Minister of a country that means business.
Even though the Indian side tried to downplay the fact that Trudeau did not get the reception other world leaders usually do when they visit India, the fact remains that a junior minister went to receive
Trudeau: a clear departure from past practice where Modi often broke protocol and headed for the airport to receive world leaders including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and also Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina among others.
Indian officials hit the nail on the head when they said that Modi was following protocol. That is just it: Modi went strictly by protocol not moving an inch beyond. For those who know Modi are aware that he thinks nothing of breaking protocol and taking that extra step when he wants to.
The key is when he wants to. This time around it is clear that he and through him India did not want to. It was unwilling to bend over backwards to make Trudeau feel at home or have a taste of the famous warmth and hospitality India is famous for. The snub was complete when Modi did not even care to accompany Trudeau to Gujarat his home state. Modi loves taking guests to Gujarat but Trudeau had no such luck. He went to Gujarat, visited a temple dressed up in an Indian attire but without Modi. When Trudeau did get Modi’s famous hug it was after five days of roaming around in India.
The reason for the Indian snub are not difficult to find. Its genesis is in Canada sheltering Sikh separatists who provide electoral support to Trudeau. Having Sikhs as ministers in the Canadian Cabinet, is something that Trudeau has flagged, much to India’s chagrin. It is common knowledge that Trudeau’s handpicked men have sympathies with Sikh extremist groups. That Trudeau brought along four Sikh members of his Cabinet did not go down well with the Indian establishment. It is cleat that apart from wooing India, Trudeau’s compulsion is to woo the Sikh vote, given that they are among the largest ethnic groups among Indian-origin Canadians.
On his part, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent out a strong message at the joint press briefing when he said: “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.” With Justin Trudeau by his side, Modi sent a clear message about India’s displeasure on Canada’s soft stand on pro Khalistan groups based there.
Given India’s posturing, Trudeau can no longer soft pedal the issue. Its attempt to hide behind the position about not curtailing the right of free speech and expression to its Sikh citizens does not go far with the Indian establishment. India’s disapproval of Trudeau’s Sikh appeasement is quite clear so Trudeau has to make a hard choice: between keeping India happy or the Sikhs back home smug.
Politics apart, Canada and India have a strategic partnership that both countries need to build upon. India’s focus on ease of doing business has opened immense possibilities for the two countries to strength its trade partnerships. Cooperation in the energy sector is crucial and both countries stand to gain from each other in this sector. None of this can be undermined. It is, therefore, for both countries to enhance the relationship and work towards a common goal of partnership rather than let politics muddy the waters. Having said that it is imperative that countries who want to do business with India need to keep its sensitivities in mind rather than riding rough shod over nationalistic concerns. Sikh extremism is not an issue Indians will forget; nor will they ever forgive the blood of hundreds of innocents that was spilled during the Khalistan movement that India successfully crushed. Therefore, Trudeau will have to tread with caution and do the right things if he wants to deal with India which puts sentiment before business.
The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (email@example.com)