What do leaders across the world do when facing the threat of a salient issue that has the potential to be politically fatal? They look for deflection. R. Kent Weaver says in the Politics of Blame Avoidance that “in bad times the economy becomes a salient issue’ and politicians find ways to blunt its impact on their prospect to remain in power.
The whole of last week the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, seems to have used a universally tried and tested political strategy of blame avoidance quite deftly and steered clear of matters that matter.
Weeks before he travelled to New Delhi for the G20 Summit on September 9 and 10, Trudeau was under intense political pressure at home. The Conservatives had been going hammer and tongs after the Prime Minister over the affordability crisis or simply put, food inflation in Canada. The Trudeau government was being criticised by the opposition for making food on the plate expensive when grocery chains were making killer profits.
Food inflation wasn’t the only subject he was struggling with. A housing crisis – lack of inventory and high rentals – had not just started pinching the public but was set to have a snowballing effect on the economy at large. With the spending power of the public reduced, Canada, having avoided hitting recession in the last quarter, was on the brink of one, per economists.
Michael Davenport in Oxford Economics said:”As of April, our Canada leading recession model (CLRM) suggests an 84% probability of a recession in the next two quarters. This is the highest since 1981, and well above the 60% threshold breached before four of the last five recessions. The CLRM has now been above this critical threshold for nine straight months. On average, recessions begin four months after our recession model rises above 60%, suggesting a recession is imminent.”
As Trudeau got ready for the House of Commons sitting of September, he dropped a hint of countering the looming domestic challenges with an international topic. After his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in which the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said PM Modi had expressed “strong concerns about the continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada”, Trudeau countered by saying “Diaspora Canadians make up a huge proportion of our country and they should be able to express themselves and make their choices without interference from any of the many countries that we know are involved in interference challenges.”
Interference was the operative word in his statement in India that was carried forward a week later to the Canadian Parliament on day one -September 18. It’s a word the West has been overtly and acutely wary of since the US raised an alarm of possible Russian interference in its 2016 presidential election. The word has been resonating in Canada too but in relation to China. A report called China/Canada: Interference in the Chinese Canadian Community, produced by the federal Intelligence Advisory Committee, has been widely reported in the Canadian media.
CBC News reported that the 1986 intelligence report “had warned that Beijing was using open political tactics and secret operations to influence and exploit the Chinese diaspora in Canada”.
The media revelations that had been trickling in this context had already created a sentiment on the ground that Canada must build defences to protect its sovereignty and should be vigilant against such attempts.
By raising allegations of “interference” by India, Trudeau clubbed Delhi with Beijing. He escalated the charge and even sounded an alarm to his constituents of the “outside threats” to Canada. With this he created an issue that even opposition leader Pierre Poilievre couldn’t help but prioritise for the time being over the affordability crisis that he had promised would be top of the order. Though Poilievre said no evidence was produced by Trudeau in parliament to back his claim, he too has had to tread carefully as the matter raised by Trudeau involved the sovereignty of Canada.
In diplomacy, an issue like Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s killing would probably have been raised and investigated behind closed doors between India and Canada as long as possible. As a politician, Trudeau could have also made the allegation outside parliament so as to be held less accountable for his words. However, he chose to make the statement in parliament. This was probably to raise the stakes to a level that the subject would overshadow all others; attaching parliamentary sanctity makes it an extremely grave matter.
Any Prime Minister is well aware of the consequences of making such an allegation in parliament and the diplomatic fallout, and naturally, so does Trudeau. The allegation in parliament and the diplomatic escalation perhaps were all a calculated risk. What may have given him some confidence is that as it emerges the ‘Five Eyes’ (US, Australia, UK and New Zealand along wirth Canada) were aware of the matter.
The US has also said it will make no concessions for any country. American National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said it was a matter of concern for the US and that they would continue to work on the matter regardless of the country. In his exact quotes reported by Reuters he said, “There’s not some special exemption you get for actions like this. Regardless of the country, we will stand up and defend our basic principles and we will also consult closely with allies like Canada as they pursue their law enforcement and diplomatic process.”
Australia’s foreign minister Penny Wong expressed concern over the allegations and was asked by the media about concerns in Australia. The minister reportedly said Australia was a robust democracy, that the Indian diaspora had a range of views and that it was made clear in relation to democratic debate in Australia that the peaceful expression of different views is a key part of Australia’s democracy.
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly also said his government took “very seriously the things that Canada are saying.” Diplomatic relations between India and the UK had also been strained in March when the Indian High Commission was attacked by pro-Khalistan groups. India expressed anger over lax security at India House in London and in a reciprocal measure reduced the security outside the British High Commissioner’s residence in New Delhi. Meanwhile, the face of the violence in March and the person who tried to bring down the India tricolour at the High Commission, Avtar Singh Khanda, died in June at a hospital in Birmingham.
UK and Australia have also faced New Delhi’s displeasure over the Khalistan referendum conducted in both these countries by Sikhs for Justice, an outfit banned by India.
At a time when the US, Australia and thr UK are all clearly increasing their engagement with India as a counter to China, the allegation by Trudeau should have made it inconvenient for them to be faced with questions over India. However, none have tried to brush aside Trudeau’s claims because of their own stand in the past on alleged interference by various countries ranging from Russia to China. And this seems to have created a safe zone for Trudeau to operate from while facing challenges at home.
(Maha Siddiqui is a journalist who has extensively reported on public policy and global affairs.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.