That domestic politics often trumps the enlightened pursuit of national interest abroad is not news. In most countries, especially democracies, the cultivation of narrowly-based domestic constituencies for electoral reasons has its unfortunate consequences for the conduct of foreign policy.

C. Raja Mohan
A leading analyst of India’s foreign policy, Mohan is also an expert on South Asian security, great-power relations in Asia, and arms control.
More >

Delhi’s perennial focus on elections of one kind or another makes its leaders quite sensitive to the domestic political considerations of India’s foreign interlocutors. But Delhi is struggling to make sense of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s political indulgence of Sikh extremists in Canada. To be sure, Sikhs form a third of the Indian community in Canada of roughly 1.2 million or 3 per cent of Canadian population. That only a small section of Sikhs is hostile to Delhi makes Trudeau’s approach truly baffling.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is more than eager to serenade visiting leaders in his home state, Gujarat, did not travel to Ahmedabad to be with Trudeau on Monday. This underlines the new cooling that is enveloping the relationship.

On the face of it, the Canadian PM’s visit is indeed a valuable opportunity to clear the air on Trudeau’s attitude towards Sikh separatism. But it is not apparent at the writing of this column whether he is ready to affirm a strong commitment to the unity and territorial integrity of India and dissociate himself from the Khalistanis. Trudeau’s team has been sending conflicting signals even after he landed in India on Saturday.

Delhi is disappointed that despite its repeated efforts, including at the highest political levels, to flag the question of Sikh separatism in Canada, Ottawa has seemed reluctant to address India’s concerns. Delhi, however, has rightly decided it must stay engaged with Trudeau, who leads one of the world’s top economies and is a member of the Group of Seven advanced nations. But Delhi has good reasons to keep its fingers crossed.

It is entirely possible that Trudeau’s visit, instead of putting aside the Khalistan issue, could end up aggravating the differences with India. Those with longer memories in Delhi worry that Trudeau’s trip could turn out to be the worst diplomatic disaster in India since Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1997.

Although the Queen came to India to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Independence, a series of incidents ruined the visit. As the Queen travelled to Pakistan before arriving in India, the foreign secretary of the Labour government, Robin Cook, told the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that London could help find a “just settlement” of the Kashmir dispute. At a moment when Jammu and Kashmir was on the boil, Delhi was provoked into an outrage.

Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral responded to the British offer to mediate by dismissing the United Kingdom a “third rate power”. When the Queen visited Amritsar to lay a wreath at the memorial for the martyrs of the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, her husband Prince Philip was quoted as saying the the number of deaths may have been “exaggerated”. A scuffle with the Indian media on the tarmac, as the royal aircraft prepared to take-off at the end of tour, wrapped up the troubled trip.

Two decades later, the Indian media is a much larger and far more challenging entity that can amplify even the smallest of Trudeau’s missteps into a huge political controversy. Whether Trudeau’s visit will help or harm bilateral relations is likely to be decided in Amritsar. Trudeau is scheduled to visit the Harmandir Sahib on Wednesday.

One would have thought that Trudeau’s meeting with Punjab chief minister, Amarinder Singh, would send a clear political signal about Canada’s rejection of Sikh extremism. After all, the Khalistanis have especially targeted Singh. But there have been conflicting signals from Canada on whether Trudeau wants to meet Singh or not. Over the weekend, Canadian media cited officials saying that Trudeau had no plans to meet with the CM. Later reports, and Singh himself have suggested the opposite. It seems that efforts to arrange a meeting between the two are ongoing.

It is indeed tragic that India-Canada relations have become a political hostage to the Khalistan question. What a fall from the exalted tradition of liberal internationalism that once bound Delhi and Ottawa. In the early years of the Cold War, India and Canada sought to create political breathing room for middle powers in a fraught bipolar world.

At the bilateral level, civil nuclear collaboration between the two countries was a shining example of scientific internationalism during the Cold War. India and Canada did fall out when Delhi conducted a nuclear test in 1974, but their bitter arguments were at least about the principles of non-proliferation.

It is a pity that Canada’s vote-bank politics have grounded a relationship that was ready for take-off just before Trudeau’s election. Modi and Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper, had unveiled in 2015 a vision for strategic partnership that was to build on the many shared interests between the two countries. One can only hope that Trudeau and his team have the political will to put the partnership with India back on track and skill to navigate this difficult moment.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.