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Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits the Taj Mahal in Agra, India on Monday, November 5, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits the Taj Mahal in Agra, India on Monday, November 5, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)


Harper hasn’t turned the page with India yet Add to ...

With an eye to history, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in India for his second visit since being elected in 2006.

On Tuesday, Mr. Harper and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the completion of a deal that may lead to a resumption of nuclear co-operation and trade between the two countries. This issue has long been a vexing one, stretching back to 1974, when India tested its first nuclear device using Canadian technology intended for strictly peaceful purposes.

With that era in mind, Mr. Harper has suggested we “turn the page” on what he described as a “challenging and guarded relationship with India.” As he said last week, “We’re not in the 1970s any more. There may have been bad things happen in the 1970s. Historians can argue about who was at fault. It’s all irrelevant now.”

I applaud the Harper government for taking a more active interest in India, even if that interest is focused at the trade level. But if the Prime Minister wants to continue to move beyond the 1970s and achieve what his predecessors couldn’t – a stable and diverse relationship – then his approach to India (or at least his rhetoric) must move beyond the 1950s.

Mr. Harper frequently talks of the common values between Canada and India. He says that India “is very similar to Canada and to the West” and that India is a logical ally. A generation of Canadian prime ministers and policy-makers believed the same things back in the 1940s and 1950s. The Commonwealth, the English language, the shared parliamentary and judicial norms, and the Oxbridge ties amongst the political and civil service elites meant that India and Canada would see the Cold War in a similar light. They assumed that India could be persuaded to drop its Cold War policy of non-alignment and, instead, align with the West. But India didn’t!

Frustrated Canadian diplomats and prominent politicians, including Lester Pearson and especially John Diefenbaker, tilted toward Pakistan, their ill-conceived hopes for India dashed as the Cold War progressed. If bilateral ties sank so low in the 1970s, it was only because India had stunningly few champions in Ottawa. India’s nuclear test was the final straw in a list of Canadian grievances relating to Cold War divergences.

Much has changed since that era. But one thing hasn’t: India won’t become an “ally” in the Western sense of the word. The conditions that had been perceived as creating the commonalities of the 1940s and 1950s have, if anything, diminished. The Commonwealth isn’t the bloc it once was; few Canadians seem to know the first thing about India and vice versa; and as a series of Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada polls show, public perceptions of India are not particularly glowing. In fostering an illusion that natural links, beyond the burgeoning diaspora, exist between Canada and India and that those links will lead to common interests, the Prime Minister does himself and Canadians a disservice.

The grinding nature of trade and investment talks and the difficulty in finalizing arrangements over the nuclear deal that had been reached in 2010 show that both sides remain resolute in protecting very different interests.

Mr. Harper has a genuine opportunity to “turn the page.” He can avoid historical missteps while moving beyond a narrow fixation on trade and investment. This week’s announcement declaring a winner of the Canada-India Research Centre of Excellence competition is a start. Although the CIRCE, spread across three Canadian universities with modest funds, may face some challenges promoting very specific scientific and technological research, it’s also an innovative idea.

The Harper government should consider equally creative and expansive ways to develop what has long been an underdeveloped relationship. For instance, there’s profound interest at provincial and federal levels to champion the development of postsecondary education ties between Canada and India. Ottawa should establish a Canada-India scholarship program, helped by an active alumni office, at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral level that could send as many as 250 Canadian students to India and 250 Indian students to Canada on an annual basis.

The Harper government should also consider how to get Indians more interested in Canada through the creation of an India-specific advocacy program. As it stands, our high commission in New Delhi is hampered by a lack of resources and staff to properly promote Canada in India.

All of these measures would dovetail nicely with the Prime Minister’s efforts to promote trade and investment ties as they promote bilateral awareness. If Mr. Harper wishes to move beyond the 1970s, why not try something new in the Canada-India relationship? After all, he clearly has an eye on history.

Ryan Touhey, an assistant professor of history at St. Jerome’s University, is director of the Chanchlani India Policy Centre.

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