A diplomatic disaster is an understatement to describe Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent state visit to India. What went wrong? A combination of narcissism, ignorance of culture and history, and lack of sound judgment were reflected in how the trip was planned and executed, Trudeau’s fashion faux pas and culture overreach, and diplomatic missteps.
— Toronto Sun (@TheTorontoSun) February 22, 2018
The trip was badly planned from the start. It lasted one week, devoting the most time to tourism with few opportunities for official state business. The Indian government had requested the Canadians cut their trip short, but the prime minister refused.
Not surprisingly, then, Trudeau’s trip had a poor start. India’s Prime Minster Narendra Modi is known to welcome foreign dignitaries at the airport, from U.S. President Donald Trump and Japan’s Prime Minster Shinzo Abe to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and give them his famous Modi hug. Trudeau expected the same treatment. But Modi snubbed him by sending the junior minister for agriculture to greet Trudeau’s entourage at the airport.
Things got worse from there. When the Trudeau family visited the Taj Mahal, they were greeted by not even a junior minister, but district officials. Modi also refused the Canadian request for Trudeau to accompany Modi to his home state of Gujarat, even though Modi has done so for other visiting foreign leaders. Trudeau later downplayed such diplomatic snubs, but even he should have known that optics and perception matter a great deal on the international stage.
After a five-day taxpayer-funded family vacation in India, Trudeau finally met Modi on day six. Yes, Trudeau got the Modi hug, and he has a photo to prove it. Other than that, Trudeau accomplished little state business. There’s no breakthrough in the Indo-Canada relationship, no trade agreement was signed, and no joint political announcement was made. So the Trudeau family got a nice free vacation, but Canadians got nothing.
Fashion Faux Pas and Culture Overreach
From the minute Trudeau and family walked off the plane, people ridiculed Trudeau’s fashion choices. As someone from another culture, I will be the first to say that wearing something influenced by local fashion is usually welcomed, because when it is done strategically and tastefully, locals regard it as a sign of respect. For example, the China-themed Gucci dress Melania Trump wore to a state dinner in China was widely praised as a tasteful way to pay respect to her host country. But the key words here are strategically and tastefully.
— CNN International (@cnni) February 22, 2018
Unfortunately, Trudeau apparently decided to throw taste out the window and temporarily forgot he’s a head of state of another country. From color-coordinated desi attire at the Sabarmati Ashram to a flashy, wedding-like outfit in Mumbai, the Trudeaus decided to dress more Indian than actual Indians do. I’ll spare the Trudeau kids, because I guess once dad made the fashion decision, they didn’t have much choice.
Given Justin Trudeau's sartorial embarrassments in India this week, can we look forward to Mr Modi dressing up as a Mountie when he visits Canada? pic.twitter.com/PVwQ0YHHKJ
— Iain Dale ⚒️ (@IainDale) February 25, 2018
Justin Trudeau probably believed that by dressing as if he were auditioning for a part in a Bollywood movie in over-embroidered ethnic outfits, he demonstrated his cultural savvy. However, rather than “blending in” with the locals, he stood out like a fool. Indians took the Trudeaus’ overly “choreographed” and annoying “Bollywood adventure” as a caricature of Indian cultures. Below is a little mockery from social media:
Is it just me or is this choreographed cuteness all just a bit much now? Also FYI we Indians don’t dress like this every day sir, not even in Bollywood. pic.twitter.com/xqAqfPnRoZ
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) February 21, 2018
Who advised Justin Trudeau to dress like a bridegroom at the Bombay event? Only a horse and sehra seemed to be missing.
— shunali khullar shroff (@shunalishroff) February 21, 2018
Justin Trudeau wears better outfits on his official visit than a groom in big fat Indian wedding #JustinTrudeauinIndia
— Sejal Davla (@JustABrainThing) February 21, 2018
Trudeau of course defended his fashion choicse by saying “Reaction of people on whether I’m wearing traditional clothing or suit and tie is extremely encouraging in Indo-Canadian friendship.” That sounds like wishful thinking. India is a modern democracy and Indians don’t typically dress like the Trudeaus did.
Equally annoying was the Trudeaus’ non-stop namaste greeting everywhere they went and in every photo they took, as if they never knew people in India actually are very comfortable shaking hands.
I’m not surprised by Trudeau’s fashion faux pas and cultural overreach because that’s how progressives approach identity politics. They focus on the superficial differences among groups of people, while failing to appreciate differences in context or to recognize the commonalities underneath these external differences. Thus, progressives tend to take actions they think demonstrate their openness and tolerance, but in fact, insult other groups and reinforce stereotypes.
Last But Not Least: Diplomatic Missteps
The less visible but equally disastrous aspect of Trudeau’s trip were the diplomatic missteps he and his staff committed. Modi’s snobbery towards Trudeau is rooted in the diplomatic challenges India and Canada face, which date back to the 1980s.
In India, Sikhs comprise 1.72 percent of the population, while Hindus make up the largest religious group, at close to 79.8 percent. In the 1980s, a group of Sikhs ran a brutal movement in the Indian state of Punjab, demanding a separate country, to be called Khalistan. The movement led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. As a retaliation, anti-Sikh pogroms in some parts of India led to the killing of hundreds of innocent Sikhs.
Sikhs account for roughly 1.4 percent of Canada’s population, but they have an outsized political voice in Canada. Some Canadian Sikhs continues to support the separatist movement in India. In 1985, Sikh separatists blew up an Air India flight from Canada, resulting in the death of more than 300 passengers.
Yet Trudeau has been openly courting votes from Canadian Sikhs. He has appointed several Canadian Sikhs who support the separatist movement to high-ranking government positions. He even attend a Khalsa Day parade in Toronto in 2017, where he spoke and was photographed in front of the separatist flag.
On his trip to India, he brought Jaspal Atwal as his guest and even invited him to a state dinner. This caused an uproar in India because Atwal was convicted of attempted murder in Canada in 1987 after he attempted to assassinate a visiting Indian diplomat. The Canadian delegation called the dinner invitation an unfortunate “mistake” and rescinded the invitation. But soon photos of Atwal with a smiling Mrs. Trudeau surfaced on the Internet, which proved that Atwal’s presence and dinner invitation weren’t a mistake at all.
This scandal surfaced right after Trudeau promised Indian leaders that he would not support anyone trying to reignite the separatist movement for an independent Sikh homeland. It’s an understatement to say that Indian leaders have little faith in Trudeau’s empty promise. So rather than improving Indo-Canadian ties through his visit, Trudeau managed to take the two countries’ relationship to a new low.
Trudeau probably never imagined that his trip to India would turn him into the butt of the joke internationally. After all, he fashions himself as the golden boy among the next-gen world leaders. He has good looks, is a darling of the progressive movement, and has mastered progressive values—remember, he interrupted a voter to change her word from “mankind” to “peoplekind.” Compared to U.S. President Trump, Trudeau bills himself as the one who’s open, tolerant, and a good citizen of the world. Thus, the world should love him back.
Yet many around the world, including inside India, see through his façade. He’s nothing but an empty suit, or in this case, an empty kurta, a performance artist who won an election without any deep understanding of economics, diplomacy, or other statecraft. Apparently his on-the-job training has been going slow, and this has reflected in every step of his trip to India.
Elections have consequences. Canadians have been painfully reminded this week what happens when an empty kurta gets elected.