When Prime Minister Stephen Harper welcomes Narendra Modi to Canada next week, it will be more than a diplomatic leap forward. It will be the convergence of two political strategies that would have been unimaginable 42 years ago, the last time an Indian prime minister visited.
Mr. Modi, due to arrive in Ottawa on Tuesday, will be the first Indian leader to pay an official visit to Canada since Indira Gandhi, the socialist demagogue, was welcomed by Pierre Trudeau in 1973.
The change in both countries' politics is as evident as it is in their economies. Since winning a majority last May, Mr. Modi has set out to remake the political foundations of his country and its place in the world. Canadians might recognize the strategy.
Mr. Modi's public pitch in Canada will be for investment, largely in infrastructure. But he's also here as part of a greater game, to make his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the natural governing choice of India, with a secure and stable majority, just as Mr. Harper sought to do with the Conservative Party in Canada.
One of Mr. Modi's goals – and he likes metrics – is to make his BJP the largest political organization in the world, with 100 million members, ahead of the Communist Party of China. Just 35 years old, the party claims it has doubled its membership in five months, to around 90 million, surpassing the Chinese Communists.
He knows the diaspora – 1.2 million in Canada – is critical to adding to those numbers, and to the party's fundraising. During a visit to New York last September, Mr. Modi filled Madison Square Garden. In Australia, he spoke to 20,000 followers who packed an arena at Sydney's Olympic Park.
In Toronto on Wednesday, he and Mr. Harper are expected to appear together at the city's Ricoh Coliseum, which seats 8,000. Organizers were aiming for the Air Canada Centre, with double the capacity, but it was booked for a Raptors basketball game.
After meeting business leaders in Toronto, the two prime ministers will travel to Vancouver, where Mr. Modi is aiming to build bridges with a non-Hindu diaspora (largely Sikhs) and Mr. Harper is preparing for a fall election in which the Lower Mainland may be the place where his majority is ultimately tested.
The two leaders have more in common than politically strategic minds; they have each blended a populist appeal with a technocratic bent to reach beyond their parties' traditional lines.
Like Mr. Harper, Mr. Modi is a grassroots conservative who believes in free markets but also values the guiding hand of government in strategic economic decisions, including foreign investment.
Like Mr. Harper, Mr. Modi dislikes quotas and other social-engineering schemes, and takes a skeptical view of bureaucracy. Both have built up their political branches and engaged them in government operations.
Like Mr. Harper, Mr. Modi must work to contain the social conservative wing of his party as he tries to make the BJP the first choice among the rising middle class. Of course, that is a more extreme challenge in India, where the BJP has a history of marginalizing, vilifying and even attacking religious minorities and, at times, lower castes.
During his stop in Vancouver, Mr. Modi is scheduled to visit a Sikh temple, a signal to both the diaspora and the audience back home that he wants to expand his party's appeal.
Even though he was previously a state leader with little international experience, Mr. Modi has become the most outward-looking prime minister since Rajiv Gandhi and the most politically skilful since Mr. Gandhi's mother, Indira, ran the country in the 1970s.
In global affairs, both leaders see a more idiosyncratic role for their respective countries – Mr. Harper pursuing a "principle-based" foreign policy, while Mr. Modi has been more pragmatic, seeking alliances with almost any country that can help build India's economy, military and infrastructure – nuclear power included. After he visits France and Germany this weekend, Canada will be his 15th country in 11 months.
Mr. Modi and Mr. Harper may be the most closely aligned leaders of their two countries since the elder Gandhi and Trudeau. The bilateral relationship fell apart the year after Ms. Gandhi's visit to Canada, when India first tested a nuclear device. Canada imposed sanctions, and the two countries kept a polite but cool diplomatic relationship until 1996.
That year, prime minister Jean Chrétien visited India for five days, leading a large Team Canada trade mission that included seven premiers and 300 executives. While Mr. Chrétien tried to make the relationship more commercially focused, his criticisms of India's nuclear program as well as social issues such as child labour limited Canada's impact. Two years later, when India conducted more nuclear tests, a diplomatic chill returned.
The two countries have since struggled to increase economic ties, with Canadian exports to India growing from a scant $555-million in 2000, to $3.1-billion in 2014, primarily soybeans, fertilizer, ore and wood. Two-way trade is barely 10 per cent of what it is for Canada with China, and still behind Canada's trade with South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.
Mr. Harper and Mr. Modi can repair that to some extent with a comprehensive trade agreement, which some expect to be announced during the visit. India is also working on an agreement to secure uranium supplies on the heels of the 2013 agreement to end the embargo on nuclear materials. In his ambitious pursuit of infrastructure projects and financing, Mr. Modi has focused particularly on nuclear power, and is expected to pursue a new uranium supply when he is in Canada.
He reached an agreement with Barack Obama in January, when the U.S. President was in India, to allow for the freer trade of nuclear materials and services with India. And his visit to France, which started Thursday, was partly designed to advance negotiations with the French company Areva to develop the world's largest nuclear-power plant in central India.
Canada's largest pension funds have already increased their exposure to India, with an eye on infrastructure, and may collectively represent the largest Canadian presence in the subcon- tinent.
But if Canadian trade is to grow significantly, it must also be through services and the knowledge economy.
One of Mr. Modi's policies calls for 100 "smart cities" – new, digitally driven communities built next to the crowded and chaotic urban centres that have become a cliché of modern India.
That would be on top of five new Indian Institutes of Technology (the celebrated postsecondary universities that graduate many of India's best and brightest), five new business schools and four national-level teaching hospitals. Canada could play a leading role in helping to build those institutions, and connecting them, digitally, with Canadian universities and hospitals.
Toronto's Ryerson University has indicated what can be done, with a digital start-up zone it created in Mumbai in partnership with the Bombay Stock Exch- ange. The facility is meant to create a flow of ideas, capital and entrepreneurs between the countries.
Mr. Modi is also keen to secure more long-term oil and gas supplies. A pledge by Mr. Harper and key premiers to ensure that Canada's own infrastructure – pipelines and ports, mainly – be built in a timely manner would give the Indians more confidence in Canada's ability to deliver.
The two countries have other shared interests in areas such as cyber-security, counterterrorism, international labour flows and environmental management.
Mr. Harper and Mr. Modi may find a desire to reach beyond those issues to see how their democracies and pluralistic societies can return to an earlier ambition, crafted for a different time.
When Ms. Gandhi was in Canada, she and Mr. Trudeau were among a group of leaders pushing for a so-called middle way, to navigate the world beyond the two superpowers of the day.
In an increasingly non-polar world, in which institutions from NATO to the G20 to the World Bank struggle for relevance, an informal Indo-Canadian alliance may yet again find its place, this time led by a diaspora that is the two countries' most important bridge.