Has Trudeau sacrificed ties with India to save his sagging political career?

He hopes that the power of the idea of Khalistan will power his revival

CANADA-POLITICS/ Bitter battle: Trudeau addressing the Canadian parliament on September 18 | Reuters

If only you knew the power of the dark side. Or so said Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker just before he outs Star Wars’ biggest twist―that he is Skywalker’s daddy. It is a lesson that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to have taken from his favourite movie. Doing quite badly in opinion polls, Trudeau hopes that the power of the idea of Khalistan will power his revival.

While Trudeau has not backed his charge with proof, he has counted on it taking away from India’s G20 success.

Trudeau’s big statement von the floor of the Canadian parliament that “security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the Government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar’’ and the subsequent expulsion of an Indian diplomat have pushed the India-Canada relationship into permafrost. India has come out all guns blazing, calling the allegations absurd and summoning the Canadian high commissioner to South Block for a dressing down. India also announced the expulsion a Canadian diplomat.

“This is a very complex state of affairs, one that goes far beyond the Indian lens,’’ said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “For Canada, there is a strong emphasis on rule of law, due process and freedom of speech. It means that Ottawa is not only unwilling to crack down on Sikh activism in Canada, but also that it will always condemn in the strongest terms the assassination of a Canadian citizen on its soil, no matter India’s contention that Nijjar was a terrorist.”

The expulsion of diplomats was only round one. Both countries have issued travel warnings for their citizens. “Government of India needs to take this matter with the utmost seriousness. We are doing that, we are not looking to provoke or escalate,” said Trudeau. The issue will continue to simmer, especially at the UN General Assembly session. A quarter century ago, Canada had registered a complaint against India over the nuclear tests. So, there is a history of using the UN as a platform to make a point.

On the Nijjar issue, no evidence has been shared so far, but Trudeau reached out to US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron. The episode could cast a shadow over India’s ties with countries such as the US, the UK, Australia and France―as all of them have expressed “concern’’ over Trudeau’s allegations. However, none of them would want to risk their ties with India, especially in the prevailing geopolitical context. “We are deeply concerned about the allegations referenced by Prime Minister Trudeau,’’ said Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the US National Security Council. “It is critical that Canada’s investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice.”

While Trudeau has not backed his charge with proof, he has counted on it taking away from India’s G20 success. It has come at a time when he is on the back foot domestically. Trudeau has been facing the toughest summer of his career yet. “Anyone but Trudeau is the mood in Canada,’’ said Munish Ohri, a Canadian businessman. The economy has not recovered from the blow dealt by the pandemic. “In the past two years, interest rates have jumped from 2.5 percent to 7 per cent,’’ he said. Those who survive on salaries are facing foreclosures.’’

Radio show host Jasbir Romana, too, pointed towards a political angle. “Trudeau has been lagging behind his opponent (Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre) by 10 per cent in latest opinion polls. His visit to India was botched up. So he has been on a spree pushing for more housing facilities and taking on grocery chain owners in a rude, un-Canadian manner.” The Nijjar episode, meanwhile, has ensured that the opposition has no choice, but to back him. And, for now, his numbers have started becoming better. “There have been no arrests,’’ said Harsh Pant of the Observer Research Foundation. “This is all about distraction. Trudeau has pushed the Conservatives into a corner. They have no choice but to back him as one cannot espouse another country’s interference in internal affairs.”

Trudeau’s father, Pierre, too, was notorious for his soft handling of Khalistani terrorists. When the Indira Gandhi government approached him in 1984 for the extradition of Khalistani terrorist Talwinder Singh Parmar who was accused of killing police officers in India, he refused to cooperate. Parmar was later implicated in the 1985 Kanishka aircraft bomb attack in which 329 people lost their lives. Trudeau Junior chose to accuse India on the floor of the parliament. “If you look at the way he did it,’’ said Pant, “it almost looks personal.” He said the US, the UK and Australia, too, faced the Khalistani protest issue, but they handled it differently. For instance, when the Indian consulate in San Francisco was targeted by Khalistani terrorists, Eric Garcetti, the US ambassador to India, said his country was doing everything to ensure the safety of Indians with the help of law enforcement agencies.

The uneasiness regarding Canada’s handling of Khalistani extremism has been brewing for a while, but the Nijjar killing has made the situation worse. Trade talks between the two countries that were seemingly on track were suddenly called off on September 16. Earlier this year, Trudeau’s national security adviser Jody Thomas identified India as top source of foreign interference in Canada, along with Russia and Iran.

The challenge before both India and Canada is to keep the bilateral relationship going despite the animosity being at an all-time high. There is a lot at stake. Beyond the people-to-people connection between the two countries fuelled by the 1.8 million strong Indian community in Canada, there are also other ties. The Canadian pension funds have cumulatively invested around 55 billion dollars in India. The foreign direct investment from Canada now is around 4 billion dollars. The continuing tension could hurt business and economic ties. Said Kugelman, “Ominously, we are seeing long-standing tensions over Sikh issues steep into areas of relationship that withstood tensions.”