What really happened on Trudeau's India trip: Trade concerns overshadowed by wardrobe choices, extremism talk

Had Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's trip to India begun with a bilateral summit with the Indian prime minister and ended with a family visit to the Taj Mahal, instead of the other way around, it might have avoided most of the issues that arose.

A look at criticisms justified and otherwise during the prime minister's eventful trip

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is greeted by his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, during his ceremonial reception in New Delhi on Friday. The warmth of their meeting may have saved what had become a troubled visit. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Rarely has the journalistic echo chamber rung more hollow than on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's trip to India.

It's an interesting exercise to see how many of the analyses were written by people thousands of kilometres from India, and how many quote the same Carleton University academic, Vivek Dehejia.

His thoughts, pitched to reporters even before the trip began, appeared in reports from CNN to China's Xinhua, as well as almost every Canadian outlet, (including CBC).

The reality is this trip drifted somewhat from Day 1, featured a few successes and one major self-inflicted wound with the presence of Jaspal Atwal, and ended in a surprisingly warm glow when the Trudeau government finally gave the Indians what they'd been waiting for all along.

Had the trip begun with a bilateral summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and ended with a family visit to the Taj Mahal, instead of the other way around, it might have avoided most of the issues that arose.

Trudeau takes part in the Young Changemakers Conclave 2018 in New Delhi, India, on Saturday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada and Khalistan

The issue of Khalistan, the separate homeland of Sikh militants' dreams, has dogged relations with Canada since the 1980s.

Canadian intelligence officials believe India exaggerates the threat from the Sikh diaspora in Canada.

Trudeau, like Stephen Harper before him, told the Indian government he's not going to sacrifice Canadians' freedom of speech to prevent people saying things that upset India.

But one still has to manage perceptions.

The fact that several Sikh militants have recently turned up in Pakistan receiving support from that country's intelligence agency is a major red flag to India, as is a campaign for a Punjabi referendum on secession in 2020.

A country that's seen the murders of its leaders, from Mahatma Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi, has reason to be sensitive.

Trudeau's business meetings were held in the very Mumbai hotel where, 10 years ago, Pakistani jihadis came ashore in boats and murdered dozens of guests and staff.

All India wanted was a public signal from Canada that it understood that. Even though the government had sent national security advisor Daniel Jean here as an advance man, India had to wait till almost the end of the trip to get it.

All's well that ends well?

Friday brought a remarkable change of mood.

Saturday's Times of India headline read, "Canada's Tough Stand on Terror Soothes India." 

"India and Canada pulled the visit back from the brink" read the story, "by issuing one of the most strongly worded statements — devoted exclusively to terrorism — in recent times."

(This was the second part of what the Indians wanted; the first was for Trudeau to publicly renounce secession on Punjabi territory, hence the meeting with Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.)

Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, left, met with Chief Minister of Punjab Amarinder Singh in Amritsar on Wednesday, a meeting that helped ease Indian concerns about Canada's stance on extremism. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Indians were particularly pleased the memorandum from that meeting name-checked the groups they wanted: the Pakistani Lashkar e-Taiba and Jaish e-Mohammed, and the Sikh Babbar Khalsa and International Sikh Youth Federation (Atwal's old outfit).

The same day, the UN Security Council voted to put Pakistan on the terrorism "grey list," also a victory for Indian diplomacy.

"[Trudeau's] entire trip was mired with controversy, we can't deny that," says correspondent and news anchor Snigdha Basu of India's NDTV. "But of course, it did turn out to end pretty well."

"The fact that we agreed on a framework of co-operation that our national security advisers are going to regularly meet, both the countries will come together to curb extremism. I think that's a great positive for the Indian side, something that they were concerned about and they were able to put forward through this meeting," Basu said.

And so in the end it wasn't that hard to satisfy India's concerns, which leads to the question: couldn't it have been done earlier?

No former extremists, please

Jaspal Atwal: two words that Justin Trudeau will remember for a while.

The day after meeting Punjab's chief minister to reassure him Canada was serious about extremists, CBC News broke the story that a former Khalistani who once tried to kill a Punjabi cabinet minister had been invited to a reception at Canada House. Liberal MP Randeep Sarai took responsibility for the invitation.

One thing that prevented that fiasco from derailing the whole visit was that the Indians had given him a visa. The incident caused a stir in Indian media, but politicians studiously looked the other way (though they continue to face questions from Indian reporters — and a Canadian official speaking on background — about the visa).

The appearance of Jaspal Atwal, right, a B.C. man with Liberal ties who was convicted in the 1980s of the attemped murder of a Punjabi politician, was a huge embarassment that threatened to derail the trip. He was photographed at one event with Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, left, as well as Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, and was disinvited from another. (Contributor's name withheld by request)

Since it sets the Indians off just to see a Canadian MP standing near a poster of a Sikh extremist, inviting a former ISYF member to a function in India while you're trying to mend fences is an unconscionably, almost comically, stupid thing to do.

And yet Sarai is still part of the Trudeau government.

Trudeau has said he will have a "conversation" with him next week. Presumably he realizes India's government and security agencies will be watching.

The snub that never happened

There was no snub as some reports had suggested. Indian reporters who cover Modi say they had rarely seen him so warm with a foreign leader.

Modi not only had the class to never mention Atwal, he even threw Trudeau a Twitter lifeline as the scandal was peaking.

Everywhere Trudeau went, roads were lined with welcome billboards, many showing his smiling countenance next to Modi's or local chief ministers. Indian officials expressed bewilderment at the "snub" narrative, a lot of which hinged on the fact that Modi didn't go to the airport.

It didn't matter that protocol dictates that prime ministers don't wait at airports.

Modi went to see Netanyahu at the airport!, said the pundits. They didn't mention, or perhaps don't know, that Modi and Netanyahu are close personal friends. Or that Indian officials pointed out that Modi hadn't gone for Chinese President Xi Jinping, the world's most powerful person.

Or that Canada's prime minister hadn't gone to the airport to greet Modi in 2015.

Trudeau's image is shown on billboards as he is welcomed in Amritsar, India, on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

On this trip, Trudeau met the prime minister and president of India, the chief ministers of three states, the cream of India's business elite, even its two biggest movie stars.

Some faraway commentators claimed Donald Trump Jr., who was in India to sell condos and the chance to pose with him in a photo, was getting more attention than Trudeau. No, he wasn't. The Indian elite weren't buying the bogus access he was selling.

Peas and beans

Trudeau hoped to persuade India to lower its recently imposed tariffs on Canadian dried peas, beans and chickpeas.

That was never going to happen, and the Canadian side probably knew that. The green in India's flag is for agriculture. The main occupation is farmer.

Trade negotiators think in terms of rules; Modi thinks of his commitments to the people who elected him, and knows he leads India because hundreds of millions of poor farmers believe his party cares about them.

It is a horrible (and horribly underreported) fact that tens of thousands of Indian farmers have taken their own lives in recent years by drinking pesticides because they can no longer make ends meet.

There is no free or fair trade in agriculture. Developed countries demand market access, then use subsidized, mechanized farming to steamroll poor farmers.

Perhaps one day the West will ask if it really wants to keep winning this way. But until then we must judge the mission on tariffs by the objective it set itself: No real progress.

The wardrobe

By Day 5, the Trudeaus' outfits were back in the travelling trunk. We probably won't see them again. The problem was not that Trudeau wore Indian clothes, but that he did not dress like a regular Indian. Sleeveless Nehru jackets are common in India; gold-threaded kurtas are for bridegrooms and Bollywood movies.

When Trudeau first appeared in Indian clothes, most saw it as an attempt to show appreciation. As the trip progressed, Indians began to wonder if Trudeau just liked wearing them. They became a distraction, though most Indians were amused, not outraged. (Some also came to his defence.)

News agencies in India picked up on the prime minister's unusual choice of wardrobe, with some saying it looked too 'Bollywood.' (Evan Dyer/CBC)

This was a well-meaning gesture where less would have been more.

Down to business

One columnist at home wrote that if Trudeau were serious about signing deals, he wouldn't meet Indian business leaders in a hotel. He'd go and see them at their factory.

Surely there is no more vacuous photo op than a hardhatted politician walking through a factory feigning interest in the machinery.

From Bombay to Bay Street, real CEOs often do business in suites in five-star hotels, not on factory floors.

Trudeau met six of India's wealthiest people in one day.

"Those people probably represented about 10 to 15 per cent of India's GDP," estimates Goldy Hyder, the Indian-born former chief of staff to prime minister Joe Clark and now head of Hill & Knowlton.

Trudeau took part in a women business leaders' roundtable in Mumbai and also met with six of India's richest business leaders. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The meetings produced some gains, not a bonanza. But Hyder says that to make headway in Asia you have to start by building relationships, and that appeared to be happening.

Toddler diplomacy

There is a Hindi saying: "A guest is like a god," and negative social media comments about Trudeau (like Omar Abdullah's tweet) were often followed by many more condemning them as unfair and rude.

If the Indians were at times impatient, suspicious or just bemused, they seemed ready to give Trudeau the benefit of the doubt.

The Trudeaus' meeting with Modi, right, was viewed by Indian journalists as a warm one. Modi appeared particularly taken with Hadrien, the youngest Trudeau. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

They — Modi in particular — appeared charmed by his kids and the fact that he brought them. Hadrien alone created more goodwill than an army of diplomats.

The trip hit some major bumps, and on Thursday looked like it might go sideways, but it ended on a high note.

And that's what happened in India.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.