Rupa Subramanya is co-author if Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India and a consulting editor for Business Standard, an Indian business daily.
As election season is underway in India, the man everyone is talking about is Narendra Modi. Mr. Modi, chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, is the declared prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the country’s principal opposition party.
A clutch of pre-election opinion polls suggest that the two-term Congress Party-led government is about to face a major defeat at the hands of India’s voters, and Mr. Modi is the man most likely to sit in the Prime Minister’s chair when the votes are counted next month.
While every facet of the Modi phenomenon has been dissected and analysed, one which is gone completely unnoticed is that there might be an important Canadian angle should Mr. Modi become prime minister when all the votes are counted.
One of the many sore points for Modi supporters is the U.S. visa ban which prevents him entering that country. In fact, for many years after the explosion of Hindu-Muslim violence that exploded in Gujarat in 2002 under Mr. Modi’s watch, he’s been persona non grata with the U.S. government. That just recently came to an end, when then US Ambassador Nancy Powell met with Mr. Modi privately and reportedly told him that he would be granted a visa if he became prime minister.
Interestingly, Ms. Powell announced she was stepping down early as ambassador to return to the United States and be with her family, although it’s widely speculated that her supposed antipathy to Mr. Modi was the reason the U.S. administration pulled the plug on her tenure with the prospect of a Modi win looking more likely.
Canada has been way ahead of the curve in realizing both the importance of Gujarat to the Indian economy and its potential importance to Canada as a trade and investment partner – and by extension, recognizing the importance of Mr. Modi’s political rise within India.
As early as 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to open a trade office in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s commercial capital, a decision that was widely hailed by Gujarati-Canadian entrepreneurs but which evoked considerable controversy from Mr. Modi’s critics in Canada who had supported what was seen as an unofficial ban on dealing with Mr. Modi, imposed by the previous Liberal government.
Canada has also been a key player at the Vibrant Gujarat summits, a biennial schmoozefest hosted by Mr. Modi as a platform for wooing investors and CEOs, both Indian and foreign, to set up important projects in Gujarat.
At the most recent summit held in January, 2013, where Canada was a partner country, the Canadian delegation was headed by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who met with Mr. Modi and spoke favourably of Canada’s ties with Gujarat. In particular he’s quoted as saying: “Just as Gujarat has the strongest economy in India, Canada has the strongest economy in the G-7. Working together, the potential to support each other’s prosperity is boundless.”
All of which raises the interesting possibility that Canada might have a leg up on the United States and other countries that have woken up rather late to the fact that, whether they like Mr. Modi or not, he’s likely to be the country’s next prime minister and they’re going to have to deal with him sooner or later.
Canada indeed is perfectly poised to take advantage of the opportunities, both in Gujarat and elsewhere in India, that are likely to present themselves if the business-friendly Mr. Modi heads the new government. Canada, in particular, would be well placed to tap into the Indian market with its large and important energy sector, which is already a key industry in Modi-run Gujarat. Canada could also potentially be a destination for Indian industries looking to invest in energy resources abroad.
In addition to this, there would be a greater ideological kinship between a Modi-led Indian government and Canada’s Stephen Harper, both of whom project themselves as business-friendly leaders who also have a conservative wing (both economically and socially) within their parties.
The last time the BJP was in power, 1998-2004, it had a rather unsympathetic Canadian partner in the Jean Chretien-led Liberals, who essentially froze the bilateral relationship after the BJP government’s 1998 nuclear-weapons test. The fact that Mr. Harper’s government has recognised India’s status as a declared nuclear state suggests a much more pragmatic approach.
Add to that the fact of the large Gujarati diaspora in Canada, many of whom maintain close ties including business ties back home, and you have the ingredients for potentially a large and burgeoning commercial relationship.
For this, Mr. Harper surely deserves enormous credit for his prescience way back in 2008. Now will Mr. Harper beat the Americans to the punch yet again and invite Mr. Modi to visit Canada if he’s elected?