Trudeau in India

Justin Trudeau’s visit to India — more than anything else, has clearly shown that India still hasn’t ‘arrived’ on the world stage

Canadian Prime Minister (PM) Justin Trudeau’s recent week-long visit to India has been termed as a major PR disaster for the heartthrob leader. His wearing of Indian clothes right out of a Bollywood wedding, and dancing to Bhangra beats in Delhi were seen as embarrassments. But can we see this from another perspective too? Viewed from another vantage point, this fiasco is more of an embarrassment for India than for Canada or Trudeau. Let me explain why.

The apparent snubbing of Trudeau by the Government of India was seen as a chastisement of the Canadian PM, who seemingly has a soft spot for separatist Khalistanis. In reality, however, it showed that India is still a myopic regional power, which cannot engage in world politics in a dignified manner. India knew that most Canadian Sikhs, like most of the worldwide Sikh Diaspora, have strong Khalistani sympathies, and while no leader in the countries where Sikhs are a significant community support an independent Khalistan, they also do not want to tread on Sikh toes locally where people are very emotionally tied to the issue. Hence, politicians from all shades in the UK, Canada, USA and Germany, where most of the Sikh Diaspora resides, keep good relations with local Sikhs — knowing that Khalistan is now merely a sentimental connection, without supporting the movement or straining their relations with India. Trudeau had never supported the Khalistan issue and had — several times — reinforced the integrity of India. Hence, when India snubbed the Canadian PM, it itself brought the Khalistan issue to the fore. It also showed that it does not have the foresight, patience, and diplomatic skill to handle such a situation.

Then there was the excessive manner in which Trudeau was slighted. The facts that a junior minister received him at the airport, and the UP Chief Minister did not even receive him in his state, showed how petty and disrespectful the Indian government can be. The BJP claims to be the preserver and promoter of Hindu culture and tradition where the phrase ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ which can be translated to ‘The guest is like god’ is central; but this treatment clearly displayed their own disregard, and even disdain, for those Hindu traditions which do not serve their narrow political ends. The reception of Trudeau clearly exhibited that all mention of Hindu traditions in the BJP’s rhetoric is mere political chatter, and that its promotion or even existence will always be subservient to political ends.

The fact that a white man and his family perhaps just enjoyed wearing Indian clothes — for whatever reason — revolted them simply because Indians themselves do not really respect their own culture

Finally, the manner in which Trudeau was ridiculed for wearing Indian clothes and dancing to Bhangra, clearly shows that even Indian’s themselves are uncomfortable when others adopt their culture. Yes, Trudeau and his family did don over the top clothing, but so what? Why can’t he and his family wear whatever they like? This was not the first time that Trudeau had worn Indian clothes or danced to Indian music, and the truth of the matter could be that he simply enjoys both (and that they also come in handy politically). What is the problem with liking and wearing Indian clothes in India itself then? It is as if his wearing of Indian clothes touched a self-hating nerve in many Indians (and South Asians). The fact that a white man and his family perhaps just enjoyed wearing these clothes — for whatever reason — revolted them simply because Indian’s themselves do not really respect their own culture.

If India wishes to emerge as a world power, first it needs to act like one. Behaving like an annoyed child and using silly antics like diplomatic snubbing only shows it in a bad light. It has portrayed itself as an immature and silly country, which despite high pretentions does not know how to conduct diplomacy on a global level. Also, if India wants its ‘Brand India’ to be loved and cherished the world over, it needs to let people embrace it as they want to. Telling people how to see India, or how to dress the Indian way, is only a result of uneasiness with one’s own image. Justin Trudeau’s visit to India — more than anything else, has clearly shown that India still hasn’t ‘arrived’ on the world stage.

The writer teaches at IT University Lahore and is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK

Published in Daily Times, March 6th 2018.