NEW DELHI — Justin Trudeau, Canada’s heartthrob leader who has near rock star status in liberal circles, is stumbling to make a good impression on his week-long trip to India — at least according to the local press.
Indian media reports that the government has “snubbed” the Canadian prime minister and that his delegation has had trouble meeting with counterparts here. To top it all off, Trudeau misspelled “Gandhi” in a now-deleted tweet sent from the revered Indian leader’s ashram.
Trudeau, so often praised for dazzling on the world stage, is apparently being given a cold shoulder by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Modi did not greet Trudeau at the airport with one of his famous bear hugs, instead sending a junior agricultural minister to do the honors, media reports noted. Then, Modi was out of sight when Trudeau visited his home state of Gujarat. The social media savvy Indian leader hasn’t even sent Canada's first family a welcome tweet.
The two leaders will meet Friday, but the six Canadian Cabinet ministers traveling with Trudeau have few official appointments, according to the Hindustan Times. Trudeau’s schedule also includes meetings with Indian business leaders.
The chill air surrounding the visit all comes as a bit of a contrast to the hype surrounding the “unofficial” visit of President Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. to promote the family’s real estate projects, meet with business leaders and investors, and speak at a conference to be attended by Modi. That visit was preceded by full-page glossy newspaper advertisements taken out by business partners announcing “Trump is here”
Vivek Dehejia, professor of economics at Carleton University in Ottawa, told the BBC that the Indian government’s lukewarm reception of Canada's popular prime minister amounted to a “major snub.”
Experts say Trudeau may be getting icy treatment in India because of the perception here that his government sympathizes with Sikh secessionist groups in Canada, who want an independent Sikh homeland called Khalistan. Trudeau's government has emphatically denied any connection to Sikh separatists.
Canada is home to 1.9 million South Asians, including an influential Sikh diaspora. Trudeau has bragged about the number of Sikhs in his Cabinet — more than in Modi's — including his defense minister.
But in India, Trudeau’s reaching out to the Canadian Sikh community was read as sympathizing with Sikh nationalists who want to divide India. The issue has often stoked tensions between the two nations — Ontario’s parliament in 2017 ruffled feathers in New Delhi when legislators passed a motion describing anti-Sikh pogroms in India in 1984 as a “genocide.” An Indian magazine, Outlook, earlier this month put out a cover story depicting Trudeau at a Sikh event, with the headline “Khalistan II — Made in Canada.”
Trudeau’s India tour includes a visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, the holiest site in Sikhism, in what has been interpreted by some as an effort to woo Sikh voters in Canada. But even the Punjab visit was marred by days of uncertainty over whether Trudeau would meet Punjab’s chief minister, Amarinder Singh, who previously refused to meet Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, the Hindustan Times reported. The two are now scheduled to meet Wednesday.
A Canadian activist questioned if Trudeau’s India trip was worth taxpayer money. “The proportion of time being spent on actually meeting foreign counterparts on this trip does not suggest a good use of public money,” Aaron Wudrick from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which advocates for lower taxes, told the Hindustan Times.
An official from India’s Foreign Ministry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to speak to members of the media, said that India’s government had pressed Trudeau’s staff for a meeting with the prime minister at the beginning of his visit. “It is bad optics for a visit to begin without a meeting with the [prime minister],” he said.
The official denied that Trudeau was being snubbed. “It is not agreed protocol that the [prime minister] will meet every leader at the airport,” he said. “We have followed all the protocol.”
Trudeau has fumbled in Asia in the past — his highly anticipated 2017 visit to Beijing was criticized after trade talks with Chinese leaders faltered.