Forgetting past peeves Amarinder Singh to welcome Canadian PM Justin Trudeau

Forgetting past peeves Amarinder Singh to welcome Canadian PM Justin Trudeau

Officials said that the chief minister would hold a meeting with the Canadian prime minister at a hotel in Amritsar after Trudeau pays obeisance at the holiest of Sikh shrines.

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Nothing lasts in politics. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has just proved this oft-repeated cliche true. "Look forward to meeting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Amritsar on Wednesday. I'm hopeful that this meeting will help strengthen the close Indo-Canadian business ties as well as the deep-rooted people-to-people relations between our two countries," he tweeted yesterday. Trudeau is scheduled to visit Amritsar tomorrow and Singh's tweet ends days of speculation on whether he would continue with the cold shoulder treatment meted out to Trudeau by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on his first state visit.

Officials said that the chief minister would hold a meeting with the Canadian prime minister at a hotel in Amritsar after Trudeau pays obeisance at the holiest of Sikh shrines. "Sukhbir Badal will welcome the Canadian PM at the Golden Temple. He will honour Trudeau as party president of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)," said the spokesperson for the opposition party, Daljit Singh Cheema. According to a Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) official, the religious body has planned special event for the Canadian leader when he visits the shrine, including presenting him a Siropa (robe of honour), replica of the Golden Temple and a sword. Trudeau is also expected to visit the partition museum, added officials.

Post sightseeing, the meeting between the two leaders will focus on trade and business, according to the chief minister's office, but they are also expected to discuss steps to intensify the close relations between the people of the two countries. "Punjab has deep roots with Canada, where a large Punjabi community is settled, and has always striven to strengthen the connect," Singh said in a statement. He also referred to Trudeau's apology, two years ago, in the Canadian parliament for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which hundreds of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu passengers aboard the ship were denied entry into Canada and forced to return to India. This gesture underlined the depth of the bilateral relations, he added.

The government's snub-though no protocol was broken-has made obvious its discomfort on Trudeau's less-than-ambiguous support for the Khalistan movement. His attending a Khalsa Day event in Toronto, where Khalistan flags and the portrait of former Khalistani militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale were displayed, was not taken lightly. Then, last year, the Ontario Assembly, dominated by Trudeau's Liberal Party, passed a resolution condemning the 'genocide' of Sikhs in India in 1984. Meanwhile, Canada's High Commissioner to India had to apologise after India reacted sharply when a former CRPF officer was initially denied entry at Vancouver airport on the grounds that he had served a government that engaged in "terrorism, systematic or gross human rights violations, or genocide".

Singh's run-ins with Trudeau and his government only highlight this underlying tension between the two countries. When Trudeau was elected Canada's Prime Minister in 2015, he inducted four Indian faces-all Sikhs-in his multi-cultural Cabinet, including Harjit Singh Sajjan as defence minister. Singh had accused the latter and some other Cabinet members of having links to radical elements demanding a separate Sikh state of Khalistan. So when Sajjan, born in Punjab's Hoshiarpur district, visited the state last April, not a single minister or even a senior officer of the Punjab government was present to welcome him. Singh, in fact, publicly refused to meet him and said he "would not meet any Khalistani sympathisers".

In April 2016, before he was elected CM, Singh had shot off an angry letter to protest the Canadian government's denial of permission for his interactive meetings with Punjabis in Toronto and Vancouver. In fact, the Canadian government had officially raised its objection to Singh's visit through the Ministry of External Affairs. Forced to cancel his political rallies following objections raised by Sikh hardliners, Singh had vociferously protested the government's 'gag order' on him.

Flash forward three-odd years and things seem to have changed quite a bit, if only to woo the Indian diaspora with an eye on the federal elections coming up in Canada next year. "We of course reject violence and hate speech. But at the same time let me assure that my position, Canada's position, has not changed. We support one, united India," Trudeau said at an event in Mumbai. The Canadian MPs who have accompanied Trudeau on this visit are on the same page. "We want India-Canada ties to go forward. The big thrust is on economic cooperation. There could be a few sticking points, but both sides will work it out," Surrey MP Randeep Sarai told India Today. "There is no way that Canada supports any elements that is against India's interests. We believe in a united India. There are some very small number of people who think in a certain manner, but they don't represent the majority view."

Perhaps that is why a mollified Singh has now directed the state administration to roll out the red carpet for Trudeau tomorrow. The following day, he will be in the capital. After visiting the Jama Masjid, he will attend a business event organised by the Indo-Canadian Business Chamber in partnership with the Canada-India Business Council (C-IBC) in Delhi and is scheduled to address the gathering. A similar event, incidentally, has been planned in Mumbai today.

"Our economic relationship with India, while growing, is still modest. This visit by Prime Minister Trudeau will provide an excellent opportunity to increase our trade and investment engagement as well as profile the Canadian brand", said Kasi Rao, president and CEO, C-IBC. According to the chamber, two-way trade between Canada and India stood at about USD 8 billion in 2016. That may not seem much, but it has more than doubled since 2010, when bilateral trade was at USD 3.21 billion. Also, the cumulative India FDI into Canada is pegged at USD 2.2 billion for 2016, with Indian companies investing especially in the IT, software, steel and natural resources sectors. However, Canadian FDI into India is still less than half that figure. These interactions with business forums might see improvement on that front.

Trudeau has saved the most important meetings for his second last day in the country. On February 23, he will head to the Rashtrapati Bhawan for the official welcome ceremony and meet President Ram Nath Kovind. The meeting with Modi is next on the day's plan. According to sources, Trudeau's objective would be to expand the overall ties between the two countries with a focus on defence and security, counter-terror cooperation, trade and investment and tackling climate change. Before he flies back home on Saturday, he will deliver the keynote address at the 2018 Young Changemakers Conclave conference.

(With PTI inputs)