When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formed his government on November 4 last year, the mandate letter issued to international trade minister Chrystia Freeland said he expected her to focus on “expanding trade with large fast-growing markets, including China and India”.
Over the first ten months since Trudeau replaced Stephen Harper, he had multiple encounters with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including a bilateral on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April.
Beyond those interactions, other planned high-level contacts, including a proposed visit by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, were postponed, pointing to a possible lost year in revving bilateral relations.
That changed over the past two months. Natural resources minister Jim Carr led Canada’s first official visit and trade mission to New Delhi in September. By the end of that month, commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman held a comprehensive dialogue with Freeland in Toronto.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley soon followed her to Toronto and met his Canadian counterpart Bill Morneau and Freeland, while two more Canadian cabinet ministers are likely to fly to India in the weeks ahead.
It was a slow start but the engines driving the equation appear to be gunned.
“Bear in mind, you’ve got a new government,” Peter Sutherland, former Canadian envoy to New Delhi, pointed out. “It was just a matter of getting time to deal with it. That was the clear signal at the outset that they intended to move forward.”
Sutherland is confident the Trudeau government will give new impetus to a relationship that already had momentum after Harper broke the ice, first with former premier Manmohan Singh and then with Modi, who in April last year, made the first bilateral visit to Canada by an Indian prime minister since 1973.
“It’s a continuation of a process. The best part is there is this strong commitment cutting across political lines in both countries. Regardless of politics, it is strengthening and that is a very good yardstick to judge the calibre of a relationship,” Indian high commissioner Vishnu Prakash said.
The groundwork is being laid for what could be a significant year ahead. As Rana Sarkar, national director for high growth markets and India for KPMG Canada, said: “There are many aspects where the relationship could get even deeper. Practical things are starting to take place. What we’re really looking at is taking the relationship from episodic to institutional, to deepen that out. Last year, in the background was very busy between the two countries.”
It may take a short while to move from the background to the forefront and the reason for that could be a visit by Trudeau to India next year.
“I think that if you look at the architecture of Trudeau’s visits in the first year, we’ve been using his brand power to better relationships that are critical to Canada but may have been either neglected or we could have been doing better it. They’re certainly looking for dates for the PM, they’re in midst of trying to coordinate calendars (of the two prime ministers). In the interim, they’ve had strong meetings on the margins of international forums,” said Sarkar, who was a foreign policy advisor to Trudeau during the 2015 federal election campaign.
While discussions on strategic and security issues are pending, economic ties have gained muscle. Prakash said, “Look at the trade flows. Last year trade grew nearly 30%. Last 24 months, more than $12 billion of Canadian investments have gone into India, including portfolio investments.
“India is now ready to invest about $4 billion in the Pacific NorthWest energy project. Practically in every parameter, we are doing well.”
That optimism is shared by Sutherland: “In my view, it’s important there’s a genuine commitment on both sides to keep them going forward and make sure there are regular visits at the ministerial level, to keep the files at the top of each country’s inbox, so to speak.”
A Trudeau visit in 2017 will certainly accomplish that.