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Prime Minister Stephen Harper departs from Ottawa on Saturday, November 3, 2012., en route to India. While in Asia Harper will also visit the Philippines and Hong Kong. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper departs from Ottawa on Saturday, November 3, 2012., en route to India. While in Asia Harper will also visit the Philippines and Hong Kong. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Harper leaves for India, aims to revive trade deals Add to ...

Stephen Harper departed Saturday for a six-day trip to India aimed at rekindling a number of high-profile trade deals with this rapidly-expanding economy that have either stalled or made slow progress.

The prime minister’s Royal Canadian Airforce Airbus 310 left Ottawa just after 3 p.m. ET and will refuel in Germany before landing in Agra, India on Sunday.

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Mr. Harper starts his official India tour with a trip to the iconic Taj Mahal Monday before meeting government leaders Tuesday.

Making his second trip in three years, Mr. Harper is keen to establish an even more intensive commercial relationship with India, including a free-trade deal, a foreign-investor protection agreement and a nuclear co-operation accord.

For all Ottawa’s efforts, these discussions have failed to bear sufficient fruit in a country that is merely Canada’s 15th-largest trading partner today, despite an Indian immigrant population here of more than a million.

Officials say this trip is designed to jolt trade talks into higher gear.

The Prime Minister is determined enough that he’s devoting close to twice the amount of time to this trip as he did to his 2009 visit. He’ll spend six days travelling through the country of 1.2 billion people, and unlike last time, this visit isn’t tacked onto the itinerary after an APEC summit.

Mr. Harper is coming at a difficult time for the Indian government and will be meeting a distracted political leadership when he arrives.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who’s also being courted by other major countries eager for preferential trade access, is presiding over a stalled economy, a paralyzed parliament and a restive population enraged by a series of corruption scandals.

Meanwhile, Sonia Gandhi, the president of the ruling party, is preoccupied with the declining electoral fortunes of the Indian National Congress; her governing coalition has lost key partners in recent months, and it is not clear that she can muster the votes she needs to pass any new legislation before the next election in 2014.

All this means Mr. Harper will have to fight twice as hard to get the Indian leadership’s attention.

It was just 18 months ago that he promised voters in the Conservative Party’s 2011 campaign platform that he would aim for a Canada-India free-trade deal by 2013 as a means of cashing in on the growing appetites of India’s expanding middle class.

Today, however, Canadian officials privately call that an “ambitious target,” a diplomatic way of saying it’s a long shot.

Trade-deal talks, launched two years ago, have been frustrating for Canada. Officials privately complain about the Indians, saying negotiators on both sides will conclude discussion in a particular area – “locking it down” in trade parlance – only to find that New Delhi later changes its mind.

Sources say New Delhi, keen on Canada’s potash reserves because the chemical is a key ingredient in fertilizer, at one point tried to link the trade talks to a long-term supply agreement. The Canadians balked, saying they would not intervene to tell a private potash company what to do.

India is also facing domestic calls to rethink investor protection deals that grant foreign companies standing to sue for compensation after a series of controversial cases there – decisions that have given New Delhi pause about enacting more of them.

Separately, Canada is facing pressure to help salvage a nuclear co-operation agreement that remains stuck at a diplomatic impasse. Ottawa and New Delhi struck a deal two years ago that would pave the way for a big export business for Canadian nuclear and uranium companies. But Ottawa insists on Canada’s right to verify India’s handling of any nuclear material provided from this country.

Canadian nuclear safety officials are in India trying to hammer out a deal.

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

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