Opinion

Trudeau went all the way to India and all he got was this lousy diplomatic incident: Robyn Urback

This trip could have been an embarrassing but innocuous parade of mild indignities. The government has chosen to make it much more serious than that.

The government could have just said, 'We goofed.' Instead, it doubled down on a conspiracy theory

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's trip to India could have been an embarrassing but innocuous parade of mild indignities. The government has chosen to make it much more serious than that. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The best-case scenario would have been that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's recent trip to India was merely embarrassing.

His trip to China back in December was embarrassing: he left Canada amid the expectation that his visit would launch formal free trade negotiations, but returned largely empty handed except for a few side deals. The Chinese apparently weren't as keen on our government's "progressive trade agenda" as we had hoped or believed. But the damage was limited mostly to our prime minister's ego.

Trudeau's India trip, on the other hand, only started out as embarrassing: for days, he paraded around his costumed family and danced the bhangra like a bad impression of Phil Dunphy after his first yoga lesson.

His office shrugged off suggestions that he was snubbed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and had to correct the record when Trudeau misspoke and announced that India would be investing $1 billion in Canada (the figure is actually $250 million).

The Trudeaus sported Indian dress for much of their trip. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

These were easily forgivable blunders. But then an invited guest — a would-be assassin — almost showed up to ruin the party. Don't you hate it when that happens?

The invitation extended to convicted attempted murderer Jaspal Atwal was pinned on MP Randeep Sarai, who assumed full responsibility for the mistake, even though the PMO should and usually does vet guest lists for these events. Embarrassing as it was, the incident could have ended there with a simple "we goofed" from the PMO: we should have checked the list, we didn't — sorry.

Instead, the PMO arranged a briefing with a purportedly nonpartisan bureaucrat — who has since been identified as national security adviser Daniel Jean — who suggested the affair was an elaborate scheme orchestrated by factions of the Indian government to humiliate Justin Trudeau. And back at home in question period on Tuesday, Trudeau defended the theory: "When one of our top diplomats and security officials says something to Canadians, it's because they know it to be true."

That is how you turn an error into a full-out diplomatic incident.

Trudeau's confirmation elicited a response Wednesday from Indian ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar, who said "The government of India, including the security agencies, had nothing to do with the presence of Jaspal Atwal at the event hosted by the Canadian High Commissioner in Mumbai or the invitation issued to him for the Canadian High Commissioner's reception in New Delhi."

"Any suggestion to the contrary is baseless and unacceptable."

To recap: the Canadian government returned from a bridge-building gambit during which it invited a convicted would-be assassin to a special event with the prime minister only to accuse the Indian government of orchestrating the invitation. MP Randeep Sarai has been made to step down from his position as B.C. caucus chair in response to issuing the invitation, but there are no apparent consequences for anyone in the PMO for failing to vet the invitation.

No evidence whatsoever has been provided to corroborate the theory that India was behind the Atwal invitation — or explanation as to how it somehow influenced Sarai into extending the invitation — but we are nevertheless to take the prime minister's word for it that nefarious agents within the Indian government executed the plan.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his controversy-plagued trip to India in the House of Commons, as opposition leader Andrew Scheer questioned the government's explanation that rogue factions in India helped facilitate the appearance of a convicted terrorist at an event in attempt to embarrass Trudeau. For his part, Trudeau is backing the theory, but it hasn't stopped Canada's Indian community from questioning whether the trip will have any positive impact 2:09

Even if, for the sake of argument, we believe the government's conspiracy theory to be true — and perhaps it is, we don't know — to foist the blame on the Indian government unduly absolves our government for its role in issuing and approving the invitation.

And by airing the theory publicly, instead of just taking the loss and suffering the temporary humiliation, the government catalyzes a bizarre he-said, he-said by way of ministries of external affairs, while also compromising the perception of impartiality on the part of the national security adviser sent out to deliver the message. In terms of cost/benefit, how is this possibly better than simply saying, "We goofed"?

The Trudeau government's impulse to save face, no matter the cost — be it an MP's reputation, our relationship with a strategic partner, or fuelling political games in another country (India's foremost Sikh political party Shiromani Akali Dal has latched onto our prime minister's theory) — belies the gravitas one would expect of an administration running a G7 nation. "The Indians made us do it" is something a belligerent racist yells from the drunk tank; not a prime minister on the House floor. 

This trip could have been an embarrassing but innocuous parade of mild indignities. The government has chosen to make it much more serious than that.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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