It is unusual for a Prime Minister — except under exceptional circumstances — to proffer comments on the internal affairs of another country, especially one that is separated by a time difference of some 10 hours and a flying time of some 18 hours. By convention and good diplomatic practice, concerns are shared outside the gaze of cameras and even then, through diplomatic channels.
In many ways Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada likes to be different. His personal appeal stems from the fact that he departs from stodgy behaviour and presents himself as a model of convivial informality. True, this doesn’t always work, as he discovered during his visit to India in 2018, when he combined poor political judgment with an overdose of what the politically correct call ‘cultural appropriation.’
India is important to Trudeau and his Liberal Party for reasons we call vote bank politics. There is a huge body of people of Indian origin settled in Canada whose votes and support are important. In particular there is a big Sikh community in and around Vancouver and Toronto that likes to shape its political activism around issues that are more important in Punjab than they are to Canada. The vocal supporters of Khalistan are important in this context since they — very much like the Irish diaspora in the United States — couple their religious and personal identity with a yearning for political relevance in the old country. For a minority of Sikhs, happily settled in Canada and with no intentions of ever returning to India, Khalistan combines nostalgia, romance and a sense of purpose. This is understandable because diasporic communities are often frozen in time and unable to appreciate the bitter truth that the land they left behind has moved on.
This — along with the strange habit of North American liberals and radicals of embracing the most reactionary of religious movements — may explain why, under Trudeau, Indo-Canadian relations have been choppy. India did not appreciate the fact that the Canadian PM had a Khalistan activist — now a Minister in Canada — in the official delegation in 2018. It has taken a dim view of the fact that Canada continues to look indulgently at those of its citizens who try and ferment violence in India. And now, exasperated by Trudeau’s over-activism on Indian matters, it has told the Canadian High Commissioner in Delhi that it takes a very dim view of its Prime Minister making gratuitous comments on how India should or should not handle the farmers’s agitation in north India. Maybe India’s Foreign Secretary should have simultaneously expressed his satisfaction that Trudeau didn’t also comment on the outcome of the Greater Hyderabad municipal polls.
That Trudeau crossed diplomatic bounds in commenting on alleged human rights abuses in India during the farmers’ agitation isn’t in doubt. What strikes me as more interesting is the mindset that allows many Western countries to presume they have an inalienable right to proffer gratuitous comments on the internal affairs of another country. I am not referring here to civil society groups and other non-official organisations taking an interest in matters ranging from agriculture reforms in India to the plight of Rohingyas in Myanmar. These are part of normal democratic life and also happens in India on matters as varied as Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinians and the plight of minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The problems start surfacing when civil society concerns on matters involving other countries start affecting diplomatic relations.
The larger question that needs some attention is the mindset that believes Canada has a say in influencing either the course of agricultural reforms in India or the manner in which protests should be handled by the authorities. The belief in many Western countries that their democracy is inherently superior to the forms of Government in the so-called Third World is recurrent. This is the basis of the European Union’s professed moral superiority and the reason why it feels it imperative to make patronising statements on Kashmir and the new citizenship laws. Along with this is the associated belief that Western Governments should use economic assistance as an instrument to twist the tail of Third World Governments and make them behave.
India no longer fits either the stereotype or the grim reality of Third World deprivation. It doesn’t seek economic assistance and aid from the West (or from China) and cannot be bullied by economic diplomacy. More to the point, India has a robust democratic culture whereby the excesses of the Government can be put right using public opinion, the political process and, where necessary, the judiciary. This is a reality that is insufficiently appreciated by the political decision-makers in the West. They in turn are moved by pleadings of a section of Indian Canadians who have influence in the political system but, alas, whose perceptions of India are woefully out of date. Their imagined India is often the country of recurrent shortages, bureaucratic muddles and general sloth.
The New India that is bubbling with energy and is self-confident — sometimes to the point of being arrogant — is sometimes a stranger to those who emigrated in the 1970s or earlier. In my own experience, there is also a discernible difference between those earlier economic refugees from socialist misrule and those who have left India in the past decade, not to escape poverty, but to raise their living standards even more. Outward migration from India has in fact shifted from unskilled labour to qualified professionals. The latter category combine their new country with a pride in being Indian too. They, alas, are not a class of people who fit into Trudeau’s target audience.