Stephen Harper's long, uphill slog in India

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's trip is intended to throw open the doors of India to Canadian business, with the goal of tripling the volume of two-way trade from $5 billion a year to $15 billion by 2015. But the omens are not so good.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper departs from Ottawa on Saturday, en route to India. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Never much of a world traveller in his youth, Stephen Harper has been making up for it in office.

He's been literally from A to Z: from Amritsar to Zagreb. He's done China and South Korea twice and touched down in Kinshasa, Copenhagen, Vladivostok, Santiago and San Pedro Sula. Now, the prime minister's aging Airbus — a lumbering grey beast from the time when they still put ashtrays in the john — has circled the globe too many times to count.

Still, this will be Harper's first time in a place where they speak Kannada.

Kannada, if you haven't stopped lately in Bengaluru — the hectic, garbage-choked city known in English as Bangalore — is the main language in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Of course, English is widely spoken, as it is all over India, or we wouldn't understand the tech-support guy who answers the phone, as often as not, in  Bengaluru.

Officially, Harper's trip is intended to throw open the doors of India to Canadian business and to triple the volume of two-way trade from $5 billion a year to $15 billion by 2015. A free trade deal is in the works!

Officially, that is. Unofficially, the omens are not so good.

In the first place, there's a difficult history. The two nations fell out badly in 1974, when it emerged that the Indians had surreptitiously diverted Canadian uranium into nuclear bomb-making. Things only got worse in the '80s, when Canadian envoys endured weekly lectures about Canada's soft line with Sikh separatists who were plotting against India from the suburbs of Surrey, B.C. and Brampton, Ont. From the Indians' point of view, the made-in-Canada bombing of Air India in 1985 proved their point. And, to this day, no visiting Canadian official — Foreign Minister John Baird is the latest example — can avoid the inevitable question from the India media: why are you so soft on terror?

Even so, both sides have agreed that it's time to move on. India needs energy; Canada has it. Canada needs new markets; India has 1.2 billion people. Even his critics concede that Harper's government would be crazy not to bang on India's door.

Everybody else is. And that's just one of the two giant obstacles in Harper's way.

The other is that this is a bad time to get the attention of an Indian government which is not just distracted but nearly paralyzed. The governing coalition of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 80, is creakier than Harper's Airbus. The government almost collapsed in September, when the boss of West Bengal threatened to pull her party out of the federal government. The issue in that crisis? Foreign investment. Indians didn't like the idea of throwing their doors open to Wal-Mart.

So, now, the government in New Delhi totters and hesitates while India's vaunted boom sputters. Growth is slowing; the rupee is dropping; corruption sickens the population. Electrical power has notoriously failed for hundreds of millions of people and political power seems to be leaking from the national government into the hands of regional bosses in India's muscular state governments. It was never easy to get India's attention; now, it's even harder.

The second rock in Harper's road to Bengaluru is the intense competition for that attention.

Apparently, Canada is not the first to notice India's rise — in fact, we may be among the last. Critics like Peter Sutherland, a former Canadian high commissioner to India, say too many other countries were faster on their feet.

"We're facing some pretty stiff competition," says Sutherland. Retired but still diplomatic, he adds, "the rest of the world, I think, came to the recognition that India was an important potential business partner… a little earlier than we did."

Another critic who is less diplomatic is John Manley, the former Liberal finance minister who now heads the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. Manley is a strong supporter of Harper's efforts in India, but wants to see much more. He points to the international competition to attract Indian students — a huge business where, he says, Canada is losing out.

"Quite frankly, the Australians, the British and, to some degree, the Americans are just leaving us in the dust in education in India."

On the broader trade front, Manley says Canadians need to realize how they look from the Indian point of view.

"We may think of ourselves as important," he says, "but we're not really that important in a world in which they (Indians) are neighbours to China, in which the United States is vitally important, in which the Europeans are there all the time, the Brazilians… and Canada, you know, calls in every couple of years. That's just not gonna cut it."

And yet, both governments say they are ready to put aside an awkward history and to warm up the relationship. On the nuclear issue, for example, prime ministers Harper and Singh signed a preliminary agreement-in-principle two years ago. And? And now, they are still groping toward a "co-operation" agreement while the Indians resist Canadian demands to monitor the use of any nuclear material sold to India. Apparently, that history isn't quite over, after all.

It's a similar story with the protracted search for a FIPA — a foreign investment protection agreement, like the one recently reached, after 18 years of negotiation, with China. Of course, making a country safe for capitalists is bound to be much harder if it's a communist dictatorship than if it's a democracy. So why has it taken eight years and counting with the world's largest democracy?

Harper's officials insist we're getting there. Perhaps it will be ready to announce this week — which will, even so, leave the real prize still dangling in the future: a free trade agreement.

So Harper slogs on, putting one foot in front of the other, on this very long road. He will have to do the rounds in New Delhi, where he must stay out of India's dysfunctional politics. Then, he will fly north to see the Sikhs' Khalsa Heritage Centre outside Chandigarh, in the Punjab — where he must tiptoe around Canada's painful experience with Sikh separatism. Next, he will fly south to Bangalore — where he must avert his gaze from the gigantic piles of garbage and focus on the gleaming technology centres.

But at least he'll have a couple of easy moments on his journey. After chowing down on spicy samosas in his cabin on the plane, Harper's very first stop will be in Agra, to see the Taj Mahal.

That part of the trip should be a breeze. But, after that… it will be uphill all the way.