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Rabbi Yousef Kantor speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen as they tour Chabad House in Mumbai, India, on Nov.16, 2009. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Rabbi Yousef Kantor speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen as they tour Chabad House in Mumbai, India, on Nov.16, 2009. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

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Harper's trade hopes for India are up against the realities of the street Add to ...

For a moment, Stephen Harper came close to something approaching, for him, passion.

"Where we are today is not where we ought to be," he told a well-heeled crowd of Indian business leaders Monday. "We are good friends and partners, but we could be better friends and partners. We should be better friends and partners." Pro forma applause, in a hotel meeting room that could be any hotel meeting room anywhere on Earth.

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Meanwhile, outside, Mumbai pulsed with chaotic, worlds-apart life. There are no buffers between the city's sparkling commercial palaces and the greater reality of noise, trash and decay around the corner.

The Prime Minister is in India in an effort to jump-start a moribund trading relationship between two countries which, as he pointed out, have combined economies approaching $4-trillion, but whose combined trade equals a paltry $5-billion.

Inside the room, before he spoke, the executives offered boilerplate assurances when asked if this could be the beginning of a beautiful new trading friendship. When the notepad was put away, the talk changed.

"There's easy ground to be made right now," one offered. Too few Indian students are attending Canadian universities, even as people here grow increasingly unhappy with allegations of racist treatment of Indian students in Australia.

There are tourism opportunities, promoted by the Prime Minister Monda with the appointment of Bollywood star and Canadian resident Akshay Kumar as the centrepiece of a new tourism promotion campaign. And there was repeated talk of a deal to gain Canadian access to India's burgeoning civil nuclear energy program.

Why are the Indians so anxious to sign with Canada, when other nations have already beaten us at opening up the market?

"Uranium. That's the magic word," came the answer. They need it. We have it. So do the Australians, but they are reluctant to sell it, because of India's past history of diverting civil nuclear resources to their nuclear weapons program.

There are reservations on the Canadian side, too. Nevertheless, "it is my sincere hope that our two governments will complete our bilateral nuclear co-operation agreement soon," Mr. Harper told his audience.

There are skeptics. One came in an e-mail from a writer who did not authorize his name for publication, but who pointed to data showing that the gross domestic product of the United States is several times that of India. Even if the U.S. economy were to grow at a paltry 1 per cent a year while India's grew at 6 per cent, the writer observed, by 2030 India's economy would still be a fraction of that of the United States.

How can Canada hope to greatly expand its sales into a country where more than 40 per cent of the population still has no access to electricity?

And then there is the question of India's security, or lack of it. A Maoist insurgency grips an ever larger swath of countryside. In Mumbai, the Canadian delegation was housed in the Taj Mahal and Trident hotels. Both were attacked a year ago next week by Islamist terrorists, with great loss of life. Mr. Harper began his day with a solemn visit to Chabad House, where the attackers killed Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, his wife Rivka and four others. Here at the Taj, the hallways still echo with saws working to repair the ravaged older wing of the hotel.

It comes down to the street. Is that wonderful, filthy, vibrant urban wilderness an entrepreneurial powerhouse in embryo? Or is it proof that India and Canada are hemispheres apart; that while we can offer this initiative and sign that deal, our North American nation will remain a world removed from this ancient oriental land?

"Canada and India have so much to offer each other and the world," Mr. Harper maintained. Both are pluralistic democracies - ambitious, creative, eager to get ahead.

"And we are both countries whose rising fortunes and national aspirations hold the potential to shape the new century," he concluded.

Fine words. But were they lost in the din of the streets of Mumbai?

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

 

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