When Justin Trudeau first visited India in 1983 along with his father, back then things were not as they are today. The Indian Economy had not yet been liberalized, there were no nuclear weapons in subcontinent, Indira Gandhi was still the Prime Minister of the India, Khalistaan was not a despised word and Jaspal Atwal was not yet a terror convict. But a year later, India and more specifically Punjab witnessed an uprising that changed the course of its history. Operation Bluestar, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Hindu-Sikh riots and Khalistaan movement for a separate Sikh nation. 35 years later, these exacerbated Trudeau’s second visit to the country and this time not as Canadian Prime Minister’s son but as the Prime Minister himself.
Prime Minister Trudeau’s eight day visit was a fiasco and things had turned sour before Trudeau set foot in India. The Indo-Canadian relations had already seen its share of lows when Trudeau attended a rally in Toronto honouring Khalistaani militants. (The Khalistaani are Sikh secessionists who want a separate Sikh nation carved out of the present Indian territory. They had unleashed a reign of terror in Punjab in 1980s and are termed terrorists by the Indian government. Some of these secessionists operate from outside India including Canada.) PM Justin’s presence at the rally didn’t go well with the Indian Government and the Indian media of course. However it only became official once Prime Minister Modi chose not to personally receive him at the airport unlike some of the other visiting heads of a foreign states. Instead, the Trudeau’s were welcomed by Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, minister of state for Agriculture
While New Delhi would have preferred a shorter, more business-like itinerary beginning with the official engagement in Delhi, Ottawa opted for a five-city tour, with a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi only on the penultimate day. New Delhi would have also liked the delegation to exclude Canadian ministers suspected of sympathizing with extremist Sikh groups in Canada, especially as they had already been in India controversially in the past few months — but Ottawa was adamant they be included. To add insult to injury, an invitation to a dinner was issued to Jaspal Atwal- a Canadian Sikh convicted of attempt to murder of an Indian Union Minister in 1986. The dinner which was an all-Canada event hosted by Canadian High Commission left Justin Trudeau embarrassed by this gaffe.
While the visit itself was not short of controversies, but what caught people’s attention the most weren’t his politics, but his over-the-top wardrobe . Trudeau, along with wife Sophie and their three kids, paraded through the country in a variety of Indian garb, taking time for plenty of photo ops, including in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and at an event with Bollywood stars. Indian media outlets called out the Trudeaus for trying too hard, with Outlook India dubbing their looks “too Indian even for an Indian.”
That being said, the trip itself was best described as a slow-moving train wreck … Very little substance could come out of it and very little actually would emerge from this visit apart from some nice photo ops.
However, Ottawa and Delhi can take comfort in the fact that the underlying foundation of their relations remains strong. Bilateral trade and investment are on the rise, a five-year agreement on Canadian uranium supplies was struck in 2015, and Canada remains a major source of remittances and tourism into India. Canada got some much-needed comfort from India on pulses, as well as a separate pact on tackling terrorism. And should India and Canada build on this, no one will even remember the series of outfits modeled by la famille Trudeau during its India visit, never mind writing reams of critical commentary about them.