Harper praises awakened ‘South Asian tiger’, promotes economic links to Canada

MUMBAI, India — Prime Minister Stephen Harper experienced the complexities and contradictions of India on Monday with a chaotic tour schedule that took him from the gritty and moving scene of a terrorist attack to Bollywood star power and the corridors of business power.

Rabbi Yousef Kantor speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen as they tour Chabad House in Mumbai

MUMBAI, India — Prime Minister Stephen Harper experienced the complexities and contradictions of India on Monday with a chaotic tour schedule that took him from the gritty and moving scene of a terrorist attack to Bollywood star power and the corridors of business power.

In a luncheon speech to a Mumbai investor audience at a posh hotel, Harper praised the long Indo-Canadian relationship and the huge Indian diaspora in Canada, while emphatically stating that more can be done.

“This South Asian tiger indeed has awoken, and the world is standing in awe,” said Harper.

The prime minister later flew to New Delhi for talks with Indian government leaders.

It is Harper’s first visit to India since he came to power almost four years ago. With critics complaining that his Conservative government has missed out on opportunities with an emerging economic superpower, Harper delivered an aggressive sales pitch that stressed both the work that’s already been done and the promise of more.

“Let’s do the math,” Harper told the business luncheon audience.

“Between us, our combined GDP is well on the way to $4 trillion. Yet at the moment we are only doing $5 billion worth of business per year. Where we are today is not where we ought to be.”

Harper recited all the links between India and Canada, including pluralistic parliamentary democracy, federalism and more than a million Canadians who claim Indian heritage.

He said both countries are emerging from the global economic downturn in good shape, and pitched Canada as a great place to invest.

Canada, said Harper, has “one of the most welcoming environments for investment in the world and has the resources necessary to meet India’s growing energy and infrastructure needs.”

Despite the high-profile visit — Harper’s 30-plus car motorcade brought traffic in parts of Mumbai to a snarled standstill upon his arrival Sunday night — the prime minister signalled that two eagerly anticipated bilateral deals won’t get signed this week while he’s in the country.

“On the subject of nuclear energy, it is my sincere hope that our two governments will complete our bilateral nuclear co-operation agreement soon,” said Harper, alluding to a pending deal that was first announced back in January.

Harper said Canada is also “keen” to complete a foreign investment protection deal, but that too remains under negotiation.

While business ties were and will be the focus of Harper’s three-day visit to India, he also visited Chabad House, a Jewish centre buried in an alley in Mumbai’s chaotic heart.

The building was attacked by Muslim extremists last November in part of wider raid on Mumbai in which more than 170 people died during a 60-hour siege. Chabad House remains a pock-marked, bullet-riddled mess tucked in an alleyway of crowded apartments and hanging laundry.

Rabbi Yosef Kantor, who showed Harper around the five-storey building’s ruined interior, told reporters it was “bizarre that terrorists should come and make this one of their key hunting grounds.”

The site, which served as a charity and hostel, “didn’t have any meaning . . . no political sense, no nationalistic sense,” said Kantor.

It was simply an organization dedicated to good deeds, “and evil came to combat that.”

The sobering reminder of the entire region’s often inflamed ethnic and religious violence stood in jarring contrast to Harper’s next stop: a feel-good photo-opportunity in the penthouse of a pricey modern hotel with Akshay Kumar, an A-list Bollywood star and an Indo-Canadian, who brought out a huge throng of Indian media to an event promoting Canadian tourism.

Harper also announced that Kumar, a black belt in karate, will be a torchbearer for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Harper also visited the studios of “Dance Premier League,” a wildly popular reality contest show that includes several Indo-Canadian contestants.

Harper and his wife, Laureen, were treated to a rollicking dance number on the set, with the prime minister paraded up among the dance ensemble for the finale.

As Harper told the business crowd, “Canada and India have so much to offer each other and the world.”

The prime minister saw an interesting cross-section of those offerings during Day 1 of his three-day Indian tour.

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