Opinion: Trudeau’s trip to India accomplished its objective

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s state visit to India has been labelled a total disaster. It wasn’t.

At worst, it was only a partial disaster. And it did accomplish what the prime minister had set out to do, which was provide good visuals for his Liberals in next year’s federal election campaign.

Prime ministerial trips abroad are rarely designed to produce specific results. Sometimes they happen to coincide with investment or other decisions, giving the prime minister a chance to announce them and take political credit.

But in the vast majority of cases, such decisions would have been made regardless of any visit.

Trudeau underlined this when, in the one investment announcement he made on the seven-day India trip, he got the numbers wrong. He said Indian companies plan to invest $1 billion in Canada. In fact, they plan to invest only $250 million.

On this trip, criticism of Trudeau ran the gamut – from the clothes he wore, to the inordinate amount of time he took visiting tourist spots with his family, to the fact that a convicted terrorist was invited to dine with him.

Local and international media mocked him for wearing fancy, traditional Indian garb deemed more suitable for a Bollywood film. They pointed out that this was not what ordinary Indians wear in daily life.

But the mockers forget that Trudeau wasn’t trying to impress the locals. Rather he was trying to impress those Canadian voters back home who are thrilled to see their prime minister dressed as a Bollywood hero.

You can bet that photos of Trudeau in traditional dress will feature large next year in ridings where there are significant numbers of Indo-Canadian voters.

So will photos that show the exceptionally photogenic Trudeau family visiting national Indian monuments, such as the Taj Mahal.

And so will photos pairing off Trudeau with each of the 14 Liberal MPs – many of them Indo-Canadian – who just had to accompany the prime minister on this journey.

But the real public relations disaster on this trip was the decision – later reversed – to invite convicted Sikh-Canadian terrorist Jaspal Atwal to dinner.

Atwal was sentenced by a Canadian judge to 20 years in prison for attempting to assassinate an Indian dignitary visiting Vancouver Island in 1986.

The attempted murder occurred just one year after the terrorist bombing of an Air India flight out of Toronto that killed 329.

Both outrages took place within the context of rising Sikh extremism, sparked in part by an Indian government military attack on the religion’s holiest shrine.

When Trudeau found out, through the media, that Atwal had been invited to a banquet hosted by Canada’s High Commission, he was embarrassed.

But not fatally so. In particular, the Indian government didn’t appear to care.

Canadians need visas to visit India and the government there is usually stingy about granting them to those that it believes tolerate any kind of Sikh separatism.

Even New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh says that he has been denied a visa by India.

But Atwal was readily accredited by Indian authorities, who almost certainly knew his history.

Perhaps they felt he had changed his views. Terrorists do sometimes. Perhaps they were impressed by his ties to the federal and provincial Liberal parties (his local Liberal MP arranged the abortive dinner invitation).

Or perhaps they knew how fickle authority can be. It wasn’t that long ago that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was persona non grata in the U.S. because of his alleged role in a 2002 massacre of Muslims. That pariah status ended when Modi became prime minister and now he is treated as a valued world leader.

Trudeau and Modi eventually met Friday. According to the official communiqué, they talked about things that Canada already sells India, like uranium. They also talked about things Canada wants to sell India, like lentils.

So it wasn’t a complete disaster. And the Liberals now have all those great photos.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs reporter.

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