World·Analysis

Canada claiming 'special relationship' with India's Narendra Modi

India's "rock star" prime minister, Narendra Modi, has been on something of a world tour — the U.S., Germany, France and now Canada. But while he's been widely feted, there are still aspects of the Modi revolution that need sharper answers, Nahlah Ayed writes.

India's 'rock star' PM arrives in Ottawa today; will visit Toronto and Vancouver

Open for business. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the world's largest industrial technology fair, the Hannover Messe, in Hanover, Germany, earlier this month. He has been on something of a world tour, trying to drum up industrial investment in job-hungry India. (Reuters)

Narendra Modi is the first world leader to visit Canada since the newly elected Barack Obama six years ago to be described as a "rock star."

His scheduled landing in Ottawa on Tuesday will also be his first visit to Canada as India's prime minister, and yes, the first by anyone with that title since the 1970s.

But describing Modi's visit as a "first" of any kind belies the surprisingly intimate relationship with Canada that he's coming to nurture.

You have to look back nearly a decade to see evidence of what officials describe as a pre-existing "special" relationship with Canada.

Insiders relish telling the story of this rare example of a Canadian "in" with a world leader whom others have only belatedly come to woo.

Long before he became that "rock star," at a time when Modi was persona non grata in much of the West, Canada was one of the few countries that did not turn its back on him.

While others, including the U.S., wouldn't even issue the future prime minister a visa, Canadian officials were opening doors — and a trade office in Gujarat, the business-friendly Indian state he ran.

At issue then (and still now, for some) was the extent of Modi's culpability in Gujarat's 2002 inter-communal riots, which resulted in the killing of 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.

At the time, he was the newly established chief minister of the state. And he was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by an investigation overseen by India's Supreme Court and confirmed by a Gujarat state court in 2012.

But years before those verdicts, while other countries remained squeamish, Canadians were engaging with a chief minister who had transformed his state into arguably one of the most prosperous in India. Bombardier and McCain Foods invested there.

Two business-friendly PMs, India's Narendra Modi and Canada's Stephen Harper chat at the G20 summit in Australia in November. (The Canadian Press)

Central to the Canadian embrace were two men who, incidentally, are both up for crucial elections this year: Prime Minister Stephen Harper, under whom that trade office in Gujarat was opened in 2006; and Conservative MP and current Ontario Tory leadership candidate Patrick Brown, who enjoys such a close friendship with Modi that he was reportedly one of a handful of foreigners invited to Modi's swearing in last year.

The co-chair of the Canada-India Interparliamentary Friendship Group, Brown has been a frequent visitor to Gujarat and an outspoken and enthusiastic supporter of Modi the candidate and his business-friendly, efficient leadership style.

In 2011, Modi apparently made Brown an honorary citizen of Gujarat. And with votes looming, both Brown and Harper could benefit enormously by being seen at Modi's side, as he is slated to attract up to 10,000 Canadians to a planned speaking engagement at a Toronto arena this week.

Defending minorities

But as special friends, both Harper and Brown are also well placed to ask Modi some of the difficult questions that have come up in the year since he and the Hindu-dominated Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were elected to turn the world's largest democracy around.

For example, in New Delhi, the city Modi now calls home, several churches have been vandalized or burnt since December. In the past month, a church still under construction was demolished.

A Hindu nun holds a poster in solidarity with the Christian nun who was raped during an armed assault on a convent school in March as protests for the better protection of women and religious minorities erupted across the country. (Reuters)

Members of India's Christian community say these attacks bear the hallmarks of a sustained assault on a minority religion. They feel vulnerable and ask what will Modi do to protect them, beyond a statement expressing concern, which came far later than they had expected or hoped.

There have also been concerns raised about the increasing reports of so-called reconversions of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism in ceremonies allegedly organized by Hindu nationalist groups — who believe those people should not have been converted into Islam or Christianity in the first place.

Modi has advocated an India where all religions are permitted to flourish. But, as many Indians are asking, what is he doing to rein in the extremist hardliners who appear to have been emboldened by his party's election.

Some critics go further, alleging that, amid the promises of sweeping modernization and the resurgence of Hindu nationalism, Modi's government is overseeing a rollback of some democratic fundamentals, like freedom of speech.

Over the past year, there have been several reports of individuals arrested and interrogated for maligning Modi on social media. And he has been criticized for remaining silent on these cases.

Muzzling debate?

On the free speech front, one of the Indian government's more controversial moves was its banning last month of India's Daughter, the BBC documentary on the horrific 2012 bus rape in Delhi.

Hundreds of thousands, of course, still found a way to watch it online. But many Indians felt the government was muzzling an essential debate about men's attitudes and India's rape problem.

Conservative MP Patrick Brown, currently running for the leadership of the Ontario PC party, tweeted this picture of himself with Indian PM Narendra Modi earlier this year. (Patrick Brown Twitter)

Modi has been open about the need to change men's attitudes and stop, for example, the continuing practice of aborting female fetuses. So why would he agree to stifle a conversation about these other grim realities?

Throughout his tenure in public office, there have also been questions about Modi's leadership style.

Back when he was chief minister of Gujarat, a former U.S. ambassador described him as reigning "more by fear and intimidation than by inclusiveness and consensus … he hoards power and often leaves his ministers in the cold when making decisions that affect their portfolios," according to a WikiLeaks of U.S. diplomatic cables.

A lot can change over the years, and certainly one would expect a personal style to evolve when someone becomes prime minister of a country as sprawling and diverse as India.

But there have been growing questions in India over whether Modi has really changed all that much.

If Canada is truly going to be a special friend of Modi and a modernized India, maybe it is time to put the platitudes and rock star business aside and ask the kinds of straightforward questions that friends can ask of each other.

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.

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