Terry Milewski: Harper leaves unanswered questions in India

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives in Manila today, leaving some tricky questions dangling as he wrapped up his trade mission to India.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper had plenty of photo ops in India, including this one with his wife Laureen in a temple in Bangalore. But India's prime minister refused to hold even the briefest joint news conference with Harper. (Terry Milewski/CBC)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives in Manila today but left some tricky questions dangling as he wrapped up his trade mission to India.

First, what happened to the hoped-for great leap forward in trade relations? Harper didn't hide his frustration at the halting pace of negotiations, urging his hosts to "be serious" and warning that "time and tide wait for no man."

Harper softened the blow somewhat by noting that, after all, India's a democracy and the government can't make things happen overnight. It's true that India's ageing prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is struggling to keep his coalition government from collapsing. And Harper got a close look at how tough it is to make things happen here, even on a national priority. 

The jewel in India's crown — the Taj Mahal — was barely visible when Harper visited. It was shrouded in acrid smog which is eating away Shah Jehan's priceless monument to love. And year after year, India's politicians can't or won't do a thing about it.

Still, there's something more going on than gridlock. Manmohan Singh refused to hold even the briefest joint news conference with Harper.

Besides that – what on earth was happening behind the scenes in the limousine affair?

The Indians say they offered Harper luxury armoured cars. The Canadians said that was not good enough, and flew in a $200-million C-17 Globemaster to bring cars all the way from Canada.

Harper's response to this was, don't ask me, ask the RCMP. And they're doing it "within existing budgets." So is there any limit? And what crime-fighting will be cut to pay for this? No answers yet.

Questions about Sikh extremism

Another question that lingers is what, exactly, Harper is doing to assuage Indian concerns about Sikh extremism in Canada. Harper made it clear that he can't abolish freedom of speech. So, if Sikh separatists advocate peacefully for their own state, fine.

But the Indians allow the same in their own country. They argue, instead, that Harper could and should do more to slap down MPs — from his own and from other parties — who happily attend events where Sikh assassins and bombers are celebrated as heroes.

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Many Indians, and many Indo-Canadians too, would like to see a clear message that, no, it's not OK to smile and wave while the parade goes by, honouring the killers who machine-gunned Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.

Look at it from our point of view, they say. We saw Conservative MP Nina Grewal at the 2007 Vaisakhi Day parade in Surrey, bringing greetings from Harper as the floats went by, adorned with pictures of Talwinder Singh Parmar, the mastermind of the Air India bombing. The worst mass-murderer in Canadian history was being celebrated as a martyr. And Grewal never uttered a word to condemn it. The government never uttered a word to condemn her.

Now, say Harper's Indian critics, we pick up the paper and see Harper eating samosas on his plane to India. On his right hand sits Nina Grewal. Is Canada really shoulder-to-shoulder with India on this, as Harper claims?

And is this an irritant that makes the trade talks that much tougher?

More unanswered questions.