Justin Trudeau’s botched trip to India in February was always ill-conceived because it revolved around lazy diplomatic tropes and shallow politicking to domestic audiences – now Andrew Scheer is going to compound the mistake.
The Conservative Leader’s news release blared that Mr. Scheer will go on a nine-day mission this fall to “repair and strengthen Canada-India relations,” and made it pretty clear the main point is to show up Mr. Trudeau for his gaffe-filled February visit.
Mr. Scheer is taking the whole sophomoric problem with Mr. Trudeau’s trip and running with it.
The first issue is that Mr. Scheer isn’t going anywhere to repair relations with anyone – at least not yet. He’s the Leader of the Opposition, and he doesn’t speak for the government of Canada.
The second is that, at a time when the Liberals have been running around making accusations that the Tories are undermining Canada’s relations and NAFTA negotiations with the United States, it’s unwise to issue a news release announcing the Opposition Leader’s plan to undermine the Prime Minister in India. Yet, Mr. Scheer announced he’s going to meet “senior Indian officials,” intervene in Canada-India relations and fix Mr. Trudeau’s mess.
The big thing is that he’s repeating Mr. Trudeau’s fundamental mistake.
Not so for the most memorable missteps: Mr. Scheer presumably won’t be allowing a former member of a Sikh extremist group who once attempted to assassinate an Indian cabinet minister to come to his events in India – as Mr. Trudeau’s team did with Jaspal Atwal. Officials in Mr. Scheer’s employ won’t whisper to journalists that the mess might have been an Indian plot.
But Mr. Scheer is starting with the same basic approach.
Mr. Trudeau set off to make India a backdrop for domestic politicking and hoped to develop relations with charm and tired old phrases that don’t mean much to India’s leaders.
Mr. Trudeau brought five cabinet ministers, four from Indian-Canadian backgrounds, and played up a series of photo-ops aimed at Canadians and especially Indo-Canadians – including an over-the-top fondness of traditional Indian outfits while his hosts greeted him in dark suits.
He lacked a narrative about substantive relations with India. It was another Canadian talking about how a million Canadians trace their roots to India, and both countries are democracies with a Commonwealth heritage.
But Indian leaders don’t automatically get misty-eyed thinking of diasporas. In fact, they’re suspicious of some Sikh expats as potential extremists, which was one reason Mr. Atwal’s presence embarrassed. They’re not moved by worn allusions to shared heritage. It’s a country with an astute political class, and they know when they’re being used. They expect politics, but also a serious effort at bilateral business.
When Mr. Trudeau’s trip hit a banana peel, there wasn’t much substance to stop him from slipping.
Now, Mr. Scheer is going to India to do his own domestic politicking, announcing it in a news release that indicates he wants to show he can do better than Mr. Trudeau. After that statement, if a senior figure such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives Mr. Scheer, it will be a slight to Mr. Trudeau that could strain relations further. For good measure, Mr. Scheer’s release included the old, stock lines about “bonds born from decades of migration and common heritage.”
Going to India may be a good idea for an opposition leader – but Mr. Scheer himself framed it as domestic politics. He promised he’d “dramatically expand the strategic relationship” with India while suggesting his trip was a response to Mr. Trudeau’s.
That’s too bad, because you don’t just swan in to India and make dramatic advances. Former prime minister Stephen Harper convinced India to open free trade talks, but they stalled. It’s a country full of complex competing interests and opposition to any concession. “Delivering a macro opening is incredibly difficult,” said Joseph Caron, a former Canadian high commissioner to India.
Mr. Caron said he hopes that Mr. Scheer’s news release is only what he says while in Canada, and that he tries to learn about how the country really works.
Politicians are going to do politics, of course. But they don’t have to relegate relations with big countries to a sideshow. Mr. Trudeau made a mistake in doing that, and Mr. Scheer shouldn’t follow suit.