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Taking long view on ties with India, Harper comes knocking

By George Abraham
November 05, 2012 09:28 IST
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The eastward shift of the global fulcrum of power has something to do with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's six day-long visit to India, but more importantly, his calculations have some math behind them, writes George Abraham

Canadians are a bit surprised that their prime minister is going to spend six days in India, devoting far more diplomatic capital there than he ever has in any other country. The logical question is, why, especially given that India has proved -- at best -- a difficult interlocutor, and at worst, not too interested in Canada's overtures in recent years.

Stephen Harper is in India for the second time in three years -- unusual even by the standards of all world leaders beating their way to New Delhi's door. Of course, the eastward shift of the global fulcrum of power has something to do with it, but more importantly, Harper's calculations have some math behind them: India has more than a billion-strong marketplace and roughly one million Canadians are of Indian stock.

The implication is obvious: Canada needs India, more than India needs Canada, although few Canadians would put it so bluntly. To foreign policy watchers who have followed the ebb and flow of Canada-India relations, Ottawa's moralising over India's "peaceful nuclear tests" has stuck in New Delhi's craw for a very long time. The bilateral agreement two years ago that allows Canada to once again export nuclear fuel and technology to India was a good start, but Ottawa's attempts to impose some sort of verification on the use of its uranium has evidently not gone down well.

Having heard the debate from both sides, I understand the conflicting sensibilities. Ottawa insists that the plutonium for India's 1974 test came from a reactor supplied by Canada and was hence in violation of international safeguards. New Delhi has adamantly denied a Canadian connection.

The Indian side doesn't get the fact that the moralising comes from a deep-seated commitment to non-proliferation and from a nation that foreswore nuclear weapons in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings without as much as a national debate about it. India was also Canada's first recipient of nuclear assistance, and that's why all its first-generation reactors used scalable CANDU (Canada Deuterium) reactors.

India's ongoing angst over Canadian caveats to supplying nuclear fuel may also hark back to a history of reneged contracts, starting with the United States over enriched uranium for its Tarapur power station. Indian negotiators are understandably firm that they are looking for assured fuel supplies that are not at the mercy of a western nation's whim.

On the other hand, Canada has had trouble reconciling its desire for close relations with a fellow-Commonwealth democratic and pluralistic nation with past behaviour. To wit, Canada imposed tough sanctions on India and was among its most trenchant critics in the aftermath of both the 1974 and 1998 tests in Pokhran, Rajasthan.

That said, Harper seems prepared to finally bury the ghost of '74, without recrimination. He told an interviewer just before emplaning for New Delhi: "We're not in the 1970s any more. There may have been bad things happen in the 1970s. Historians can argue about who was at fault. It's all irrelevant now. The world is different. This country's needs are different and this country can have a good, positive relationship with India -- and, in my judgement, needs it."

Ottawa, though, is clearly frustrated at the slow pace of negotiations with New Delhi on a range of fronts and what is seen here as foot-dragging and constant prevarication. Both the nuclear agreement and free-trade talks have been hanging fire for two years, and a fairly basic foreign investment protection protocol has been in limbo for eight years. One official here was quoted as saying in the context of the free-trade talks, "It's slow, and they're not as reliable." Surely, that's not helpful.

But, Harper remains hopeful, taking the long view -- as he does with the Chinese -- that Canada needs to keep knocking, recognising that geopolitics no longer favours the old powers in the western hemisphere. With the Chinese, Ottawa has learned to downplay Beijing's abysmal human rights record, while with New Delhi, Canada is learning to accept as a given the imperfections of a democracy that is in perpetual churn.

As Harper himself told Postmedia's Mark Kennedy, "And I'm one who happens to believe that democratic institutions, while they may slow things down, actually in the long term produce more robust outcomes with greater social buy-in and more secure long-term economic development." While that may sound strange to Canadians, who know their prime minister as one who brooks little interference from his political adversaries, it will be well received by his hosts over the next six days.

Commentary in Canada has focused a lot on the length of Harper's India sojourn and the fact that he will be again visiting Punjab -- the state that accounts for more than half of all Canadians of Indian origin. Several mention that the visit is aimed largely as a spectacle for the immigrant Indian population, which like newcomers from other parts of the world has been switching political loyalties to Harper's Conservatives after consistently voting Liberal for decades. It is widely believed that the Conservative's majority win in May 2011 owed much to this so-called "ethnic vote".

This rather simplistic reading misses the point that Indo-Canadians are among the most astute of voters, with democratic notions deeply embedded in their DNA (unlike the Chinese, for example, who comprise another large immigrant community in Canada). While paying his respects at a Sikh shrine or eating a stuffed kulchav at a dhaba (since aborted) may demonstrate a certain empathy with the multicultural mosaic that is Canada, it is hardly enough to earn a vote. The same Sikh immigrant also weighs the fact that it was the Harper government that made it impossibly harder to sponsor extended family members and overnight eliminated a backlog of 280,000 visa applications that were filed before 2008.

Harper's biggest imponderable might be Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's ability to steer the trundling aircraft carrier that is his government. Dr Singh's commitment to finding common ground with Canada may not be wanting, and yet there may be no movement. The Indian side, however, can be sure that Harper has the political capital to follow through on any commitment he makes in New Delhi.

Born in India, George Abraham is an Ottawa-based commentator on foreign policy and immigration
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