Why Justin Trudeau’s India tour turned out to be a diplomatic disaster


(This column originally appeared in the Economic Times)

By: Candice Malcolm

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has built a reputation for himself as an ardent defender of progressive values, a global leader who is open, tolerant, liberal and colourful – well, at least his socks are colourful. Trudeau is a self-styled feminist who takes political correctness to new heights, as was the case when he recently interrupted a young woman and instructed her to use the term “peoplekind” rather than mankind.  


In Canada, many have grown skeptical of the Prime Minister’s antics. His popularity is on the decline at home, and he just returned from a cross-Canada speaking tour that went anything but well. You can give him credit for attending a series of pubic town hall events, where he engaged with the Canadian public and took questions, but Trudeau’s performance left much to be desired. The “peoplekind” gaffe was just the beginning. While explaining why his government is tied up in controversial court battle with a veterans’ group over pension payments, Trudeau told a wounded war hero that Canadian veterans were asking for more money than his government was willing to give. This left a sting given that Trudeau’s government recently awarded convicted al-Qaeda terrorist Omar Khadr $10.5 million without going to court.

Next, Trudeau was asked why his government was welcoming members of ISIS back into Canada (he recently stated that returned fighters could become an “extraordinarily powerful voice” in Canada.) Trudeau’s tone-deaf response was to equate ISIS terrorists with other waves of immigration to Canada, including Europeans who were fleeing Nazi Germany during WWII. Canadians weren’t pleased. And skepticism towards Trudeau’s naive and often arrogant public outbursts continues to mount.

Trudeau is treated differently, however, while travelling on the world stage. He’s enjoyed favourable media coverage and GQ covers accompanying international visits to New York, Washington, Paris, Tokyo and Manila, and his long tour of India was supposed to be a fresh opportunity to capitalize on Trudeau’s international popularity – to show off his photogenic family and tout his progressive bona fides. But, as we all know, Trudeau’s time in India has instead been a complete and unmitigated diplomatic disaster.

So, what went wrong? In a word, narcissism – paired with superficiality and poor judgement.

Canada’s Prime Minister’s success to date can be traced more to his talents as a performance artist than to any innate or acquired aptitude or understanding of statecraft, economics, or diplomacy. When posing in a costume, or working methodically through the storyboarded scripts of a campaign advertisement, he is at his best. But without a scripted narrative to follow, he lacks the depth and the sophistication to grasp when the show has gone on too long.

The trip started off on a disappointing note, as the Trudeau delegation was received at the airport by a minister of state, not even a member of Modi’s cabinet. International and local observers speculated that Trudeau was being snubbed – given the cold-shoulder over unscrupulous ties between his Liberal Party of Canada and Khalistani separatists and extremists.

The Liberals have a long history of vote-bank politics, pandering to illiberal elements within diaspora communities to win votes in strategic electoral districts. Under Trudeau’s leadership, the Liberal Party has further aligned itself with the powerful World Sikh Organization; Trudeau appointed several of its supporters, including Harjit Sajjan and Navdeep Bains, to high-ranking cabinet positions.     

Trudeau’s partisan pandering went so far as attending a Khalsa Day parade in Toronto in 2017, where he gave a speech and was photographed in front of the yellow and blue Khalistan separatist flag. Trudeau’s predecessor Stephen Harper refused to attend this event, and for good reason. These events feature militant Khalistani parade floats, posters and shrines dedicated to terrorists and so-called martyrs, and speakers calling for a violent upheaval against the Indian government. Trudeau’s poor judgement in attending this event was catching up with him; Canada’s allies in India seemed to see through Trudeau’s shiny veneer and recognize his unsavory relationships with potentially subversive actors.

Things turned markedly worse for Trudeau when news broke in Canada, led by my own investigation for the Toronto Sun, that Trudeau’s entourage included a convicted assassin and former Sikh terrorist. After going to great length to convince Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh that his government did not associate with radicals, we learned that one such radical was part of his own entourage in India.

Jaspal Atwal was convicted of attempted murder in Canada in 1987 after he attempted to assassinate a visiting Punjabi cabinet minister on Vancouver Island. At the time, Atwal was a member of the International Sikh Youth Federation – a terrorist group now banned in Canada.

The Trudeau government tried to distance itself from Atwal, saying it was all a “mistake,” blaming a back-bench MP, and insisting the invitation had been rescinded. Too little, too late, said some observers. Atwal was already in India, his official invitation to a state dinner was circulating on social media, and he had already been photographed with top Liberal officials including Trudeau’s own wife Sophie Trudeau.

The Trudeau government’s explanation was further refuted when more photos surfaced of Atwal with Trudeau himself, one at a 2015 Liberal Party campaign event in Vancouver, and another that appears to have been taken before Trudeau became leader of the Liberal Party. Atwal is a long-time Liberal supporter and activist, he’s a former donor to the party and a former Liberal board member for the electoral district in Surrey, British Columbia. Atwal’s ties to the Liberals run deep, and there is no excuse for Trudeau’s continued relationship with a convicted criminal and former member of a terrorist organization.

Trudeau’s time in India was criticized for its lack of official business, not to mention the excessive photo-ops and insensitive over-use of Indian clothing. To add insult to injury for Canadians, his tax-payer funded tour looked more like another lavish family vacation – including his own celebrity chef flown in from Vancouver – than a diplomatic bilateral meeting. But these criticisms pale in comparison to serious catastrophe of not only associating with a convicted terrorist assassin, but bringing him to India alongside his official delegation.

Many questions remain unanswered, including how Atwal received a visa and why the Prime Minister’s Office failed to vet the official invitation list. Trudeau will have plenty of explaining to do once he arrives back in Canada. Many Canadians, meanwhile, are deeply embarrassed and ashamed of Trudeau’s behaviour in India. A grassroots petition has been launched for Canadians to show their support for a united India and apologize on behalf of our clueless Prime Minister.

The spectacle of Trudeau’s over-the-top optics have backfired on the Canadian Prime Minister, and, as Emmy-nominated reporter and author Barkha Dutt wrote in the Washington Post, “he has only himself to blame.”