Something strange happened during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bilateral visit to Canada. He gained a shadow — not his security details, even if that was substantial — in Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The number of joint appearances the two made was just as unusual in the context of global relations as say, the Americans using Indian carriers to evacuate citizens from Yemen. Harper waded into Modi’s wake from Ottawa to Toronto to Vancouver.
While defining a new trajectory in relations between the two countries will be the official version for the plethora of proximity, and, to an extent, it certainly is, another cause leads to Harper being too close — for comfort.
Unless early elections are called in Canada, the Conservative government in power will contest elections this October. Four years of his governance has left Canada with a flagging economy and faltering job growth. That’s not all Harper’s fault, since it’s been partly driven by cratering oil prices in a country that’s fuelled by the resource sector. Not a pretty picture. The Conservative have regained some ground as terrorism, and ISIS, become factors but not enough for that to be earth-shaking.
While Modi’s ‘friend’, American President Barack Obama, plays golf, Harper plays the keyboards. His duets with Modi are keeping in tune with a significant event at which he may be poised to face the music. In fact, Harper’s first public performance as PM was at the National Arts Center gala in Ottawa in 2009. The number was the Beatles’ With a Little Help from My Friends.
That could also play out as the theme to this bilateral bonhomie. There are between 1.2 and 1.5 million Indian-Canadians, making for a little less than 5% of the country’s population.
Parliamentary seats, called ridings here, in the 2011 Federal elections were, at times, decided by as little as 26 votes. The Conservatives partly owe their majority in the House of Commons to sweeping what’s known as the 905 region, named after the area code for Toronto’s suburbs. In 2015, there will be additional seats in play in this critical pocket.
Two Conservatives will again be tasked with wooing this demographic, among them is defence minister Jason Kenney, a frequent flyer to Ahmedabad, who Binoy Thomas, founder-editor of one of the oldest Indian-Canadian newspapers, Weekly Voice, says is such a great researcher into ethnic blocs that he can tell you what sort of dishes a person from Kottayam prefers. And, aiding him will be MP Patrick Brown, whom apparently Modi once asked people to call Patrickbhai.
With Gujaratis the second-largest Indian group in Canada and growing, that matters, as Harper’s Conservatives try to make every vote count, without discounting a single minority group.
Harper will be hoping that after he’s done lunching and dining with Modi, an aftertaste will linger with the Indian-Canadians so they don’t desert him on polling day for the opposition, Liberal or New Democratic parties. A power outage may have hit Washington last week, but Harper certainly doesn’t want to experience one in Ottawa.
That may be why he was introducing Modi at a community reception. For the money shot, holding his arm up, betting on Modi’s non-resident Gujarati base to turn out, not just at the polls but also at fund-raisers.
It isn’t just the Canadians though who think that Modi can be an effective surrogate.
Apparently, David Cameron’s Conservative-led government in England had also sent out feelers for a visit this year, conveniently just ahead of the parliamentary polls, but that didn’t quite tickle New Delhi’s fancy.
The Modi wave may well have dissipated in India, as the Delhi assembly election results have indicated, but those abroad appear to hope that a ripple effect may still be felt on their shores.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal