Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments professing solidarity with farmers from Punjab protesting at Delhi’s borders against the recently approved farm legislation should not have come as a surprise to South Block. After all, in recent years, India has made a point of harnessing the political power of its diaspora across the world. From “Howdy, Modi” to “Namaste, Trump”, from “Namaste, Wembley” to “Bharat ki Baat, Sabke Saath”, and other glitzy events in world capitals, the government has underlined since 2014 that it considers Indians who are citizens of other countries as force multipliers for Delhi, and indeed, for the BJP, in the larger world. In turn, some world leaders have tried to talk up their relations with the Indian leadership to win the hearts of their constituencies. David Cameron’s declaration at a packed Wembley stadium in London in 2015, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi by his side, that “achche din aa gaye hain”, was an early example of this, much before the back-to-back Trump-Modi fests in Houston and Ahmedabad. The Canadian PM’s intervention, however, may remind India of a time when elected leaders in the mother country did not have diasporas eating out of their hands, and these diasporas used their political clout in their adopted countries to highlight perceived issues and problems back home.
In this backdrop, Delhi’s response to Trudeau, calling his comments “ill-informed”, sounded churlish, as if only India has the right to play diaspora politics. More than that, it made it appear insecure and resentful. The fact is, Indian diplomacy has come a long way since the “foreign hand” bogey, when a large amount of its energies were devoted to convincing the rest of the world about India’s credentials as a robust democracy — think Gerald Kaufman, British parliamentarian of another era, and 1990s Kashmir. If Trudeau is misinformed in his perception that the right of peaceful protest is in danger in India, it only goes to show that there are large gaps in Delhi’s outreach to Canada that it needs to plug.
Having said that, however, it would be in Trudeau’s interests, and Canada’s, to be aware of the hazards of playing to certain galleries in the Sikh diaspora in Toronto and Vancouver. Canada has its own share of tragic memories, and political and security failures on the “Khalistan” issue. Trudeau’s week-long sojourn in India in February 2018 would have made it clear to him that in today’s Punjab, there is little tolerance for extremism 2.0. His government has steered clear of backing the Pakistani-sponsored “2020 Sikh referendum”. But by reaching out to the protesting farmers outside Delhi under pressure from a section of the Liberal Party Sikh MPs, Trudeau is only putting the farmers at risk of what they are themselves keen to avoid — being identified with those outside the country who would want to stir trouble in Punjab once again.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines