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'Trudeau has made a major gamble'

September 21, 2023 11:32 IST
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'If Trudeau chooses to repeat his allegations in his UN speech on Friday, it would create a whole new escalation.'

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi greets Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the G20 Summit in New Delhi, September 9, 2023. Photograph: Evan Vucci/Pool via Reuters

"There will be senior Canadian and Indian officials in New York, and so there will be opportunities for some conversations on the sidelines to try to ease tensions. But admittedly, tensions may be too high to expect the temperature to be lowered so soon," Dr Michael Kugelman, Director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Centre in Washington DC, tells's Archana Masih in an e-mail interview.


Do you think Justin Trudeau made the unprecedented revelation in the Canadian parliament because he was rebuffed by the US, the UK in his attempt to highlight India's alleged role in the assassination?

We don't know why Trudeau decided to go public. There are several possibilities.

One is that he was so confident that the allegations are accurate, and that India had done such a terrible thing, that he felt an obligation to reveal this to his country and the world.

Another possibility is that it was personal: In effect, he was angry with New Delhi about what he regards as its longstanding interference in domestic affairs, angry about what he believes was its role in the assassination, and even more angry after his very unpleasant trip to India during the G20 summit. So he decided to shame the Indian government.

One more possibility is that he wanted to shore up his popularity at home by doing something sure to have a rally-around-the-flag effect that unites the country and its politicians around him.

Certainly, a combination of these factors could also be at play.

Who has lost more because of this revelation? Trudeau because he did not produce any evidence to substantiate his allegation or India, which regardless of the truth, is seen in some quarters as acting in a manner not befitting a G20 nation State?

Both have taken some big hits. Trudeau, because he decided to go public with his allegations, is now facing growing pressure at home to provide evidence.

His decision to go public did pay off politically initially, as the Opposition rallied around him, but now he's facing growing criticism from his political opponents for not showing the evidence.

But India is also in a tough spot. It's suffered a major reputational blow. Regardless of whether the allegations are true or not, the head of government of a Western power has accused India of being involved in a State-sponsored assassination, and India doesn't come out of that looking good.

It's also, perhaps, an embarrassment for a government that is sensitive to even the most modest forms of external criticism -- and yet this goes so much further, with an explosive allegation.

IMAGE: Trudeau rises to make his statement in the House of Commons in Ottawa, September 18, 2023. Photograph: Blair Gable/Reuters

Canada has bracketed India along with China and Russia as meddling in its internal affairs. Do you think India was justified in monitoring the activities of the Khalistani separatists because of their threat to India's integrity?
After all, Canada's benign, historic, attitude towards the Khalistanis resulted in the Kanishka tragedy and damaged, perhaps irreversibly, India-Canada relations?

This is a tough one. It's easy to understand India's position, given the violent history of the Khalistan movement, and the trauma and tragedy it brought for India in the 1980s and 1990s.

Most governments would view avowed separatists with deep concern. To be sure, there is no longer an active Khalistan insurgency in India, and Sikh extremist violence is rare now. And yet, memories of the past -- and the trauma that accompanies them -- die hard.

But there are other perspectives, too. One can ask what is gained by focusing so much attention on a relatively small group of people thousands of miles away who are committed to a cause that has essentially petered out in India itself.

Not to mention, though it happens all the time, democracies shouldn't be in the business of interfering in politics and society in other countries.

In your experience, how would you evaluate Justin Trudeau's statement on Monday? What was it meant to achieve? What will it achieve?
Can India-Canada relations be repaired as long as he is in office? Does India really need Canada on its side given that it has a strategic relationship with the US?

Let's be clear: The India-Canada relationship would not be in dire crisis now if Trudeau hadn't gone public with the allegations. It would be quite tense, but not in deep crisis. So Trudeau made a major gamble by going public, in that he put future relations with India at risk.

Neither capital wants a rupture in relations. Canada-India ties have brought deeper trade and defence ties, and strategic convergences have emerged over the China factor.

Canada is a top 20 investor in India, there is a robust trade partnership, and there is a rapidly growing Indian diaspora in Canada.

Ottawa may not be as important to India as Washington is, but does India -- with its great power aspirations -- really want to be seen as that country that was willing to jettison a relationship with a key Western power? I don't think so.

IMAGE: Trudeau at the Golden Temple during his visit to India in February 2018. Photograph: PTI Photo

How do you see the fallout of Canada's allegations unfolding in the coming days? In India, in Canada and in the West?

We'll get some immediate answers on Friday, at the UNGA meetings in New York. Trudeau will give his speech on Friday. If at the UN he chooses to repeat his allegations against India, that would create a whole new escalation that could well eliminate any prospect of immediate-term offramps.

But then again, there's the glass half full perspective: There will be senior Canadian and Indian officials in New York, and so there will be opportunities for some conversations on the sidelines to try to ease tensions.

But admittedly, tensions may be too high to expect the temperature to be lowered so soon.

There may be a back channel opportunity for Washington, possibly at the UNGA but more likely further down the road. It may try to press the two capitals to figure out some way forward that eases tensions and salvages the relationship.

IMAGE: Union Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar sees off Trudeau at Palam airport, September 12, 2023. Photograph: @Rajeev_GoI/X

How do you think the US is viewing this and how is it likely to deal with this considering its partnership with Canada and strategic relationship with India?

The US is certainly in a tough spot. It has to balance the need to show solidarity with its treaty ally with the imperative of not upsetting a key strategic partner.

That's why I think it may opt for some type of mediation. Washington doesn't want to be in the position of having to decide how to navigate this crisis between two key US partners.

The most prudent path forward is to help ease the crisis itself.

But, it may not be that simple. If the US concludes the allegations are true, it won't simply shrug that off. A State-sponsored assassination to its north would be difficult to swallow. There would be notable security and other implications for Washington, which could lead to some awkward discussions with India.

I don't mean to suggest any threats to the future of US-India partnership -- far from it. Still, a relationship that has been largely crisis-free for the last decade could face a rude awakening, even if it's only momentary.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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