Narendra Modi arrived in Ottawa on Tuesday evening for the start of a landmark trip to Canada – the first bilateral visit by a sitting Indian prime minister in more than 40 years. The highly anticipated trip had many different organizations and financial leaders vying for an audience with Mr. Modi, who leads the world's fastest-growing major economy.
But the trip has already faced a setback: A high-profile event aimed at introducing Canadian businesses to Mr. Modi has been cancelled.
The Canada-India Business Council and the Toronto Board of Trade invited 400 people to an event that included small and medium enterprises at the Four Seasons hotel in Toronto on Thursday, where they also expected to host Mr. Modi and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Less than a week before the event was to take place, organizers were told it would have to be cancelled because Mr. Modi did not have room in his schedule to participate.
The mix-up underscores the reality that beneath the two governments' rhetoric about increasing ties, the business relationship between the two countries still faces challenges – despite increased enthusiasm for India under Mr. Modi's rule.
Mr. Modi will meet with Mr. Harper on Wednesday morning on Parliament Hill and the two leaders will hold a working lunch before departing for Toronto around 2 p.m., according to an itinerary supplied by the government. Both are expected to address close to 10,000 members of Toronto's Indo-Canadian community at Ricoh Coliseum on Wednesday evening.
People involved with the small and medium enterprise event learned it would be cancelled several days ago. A second event, which organizers had hoped could bring together Indian and Canadian business leaders during Mr. Modi's visit, did not move forward, according to several sources familiar with the matter.
The CEO forum was originally contemplated by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, which has put on similar events during past trade ministers' visits. It was not planned as far ahead as the small and medium business event, sources said.
Mr. Modi is still expected to meet with the heads of pension funds, banks and insurance firms in Toronto on Thursday morning, sources said. His government is keen to encourage institutional investors to look more closely at India's burgeoning infrastructure sector, which was estimated by India's government in 2011 to require more than $1-trillion (U.S.) over a 20-year period.
One source from the Indo-Canadian business community said Mr. Modi's primary concern on the trip was shoring up political support among the broader Indian diaspora. The source said the business part of the trip – outside of meetings with big pension funds that could invest in Indian infrastructure – had taken a back seat to the broader social and political events, such as the one at the Ricoh Coliseum.
This source also said there was a large degree of frustration in the business community because communication from the Prime Minister's Office in Ottawa came too late to properly pull together senior leaders.
And while the small and medium enterprise event at the Four Seasons had been organized, the plans hadn't properly been communicated to Mr. Modi's staff, who were said to be caught off guard and had already scheduled their own meetings.
Another source, a senior member of the Indo-Canadian business community, said the Indian side laid blame for the failure of the CEO event with the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. At the same time, the source said the Canadian side has quietly suggested the Indian delegation "wasn't pleased with the seniority" of the business leaders that had been mustered, and had "wanted bigger names."
There has been a surge of Canadian investment from the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board, Brookfield Asset Management and Fairfax Financial Holdings – totalling nearly $4.5-billion – since Mr. Modi's election, according to a new Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada report.
Stewart Beck, Canada's former high commissioner to India, said in an interview that it was "not unusual" for business events attached to bilateral visits to be scheduled hastily because of security concerns and a preference to bring along high-level CEOs.