Ottawa’s Support for India’s Farm Protests Dampen Indo-Canada Relations

Canadian politicians more interested in winning votes than supporting Indian farmers, say analysts
December 10, 2020 Updated: December 10, 2020

News Analysis

Canada’s relations with India—a strategic democratic ally—have taken a hit due to comments Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made regarding Indian farmers protesting agricultural reforms. The timing of the diplomatic spat is very poor as is how it reflects on Canada’s skill in conducting its foreign relations, some observers of Indian origin in Canada say.

Speaking on Dec. 1 to celebrate the birth of the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak Dev Ji, Trudeau weighed in on the farmers’ protests, saying “The situation is concerning.” 

He added, “Canada will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protest … we’ve reached out through multiple means directly to the Indian authorities to highlight our concerns.”

Opposition leader Erin O’Toole echoed Trudeau’s comments, saying that the Conservatives are aware of the situation and “we will always support people’s right to peacefully protest.”

Hundreds of thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab, have traveled to Delhi to block streets and highways in protest, while police have confronted them in the name of keeping order. Thousands of Canadians have also rallied in support of the farmers in a handful of cities across Canada.

The main reason Indian farmers are protesting is  the new laws that end the government agreement to buy produce at set prices, which forces farmers to deal with the private market.

The current system is blamed for distorted prices, spoiled food, and giving traders a dominating influence in the sector, but many farmers believe it provides price certainty. Critics of the system believe it has stagnated India’s agricultural development.

The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi aims to move toward a free-market economy for the farmers. The stated goal is to allow them to better control their fortunes and revitalize the massive agricultural sector.

The protests have grown to a substantial size and become a major challenge for Modi, making the timing of Trudeau’s comments particularly irksome to the Indian government.

“From a [Canadian] national interest perspective, it is deeply problematic, that [Canada’s] Prime Minister is somehow now endorsing Indian socialism in the agricultural sector when we all benefit—including Indian farmers—from more marketing freedom for their own products,” Shuvaloy Majumdar, a Munk senior fellow for foreign policy at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, told The Epoch Times.

Comments in support of the protestors from another country are the wrong way to conduct statecraft, Majumdar added. 

“It strikes me more that the Prime Minister is pursuing pandering to a particular niche constituency,” he said.

Vivek Dehejia, an economics and philosophy professor at Carleton University, also criticized Trudeau’s stance on the issue.

“This has little to do with the farmers. This stunt will sour relations with India even more than his train wreck of a visit in 2018,” tweeted Dehejia

Majumdar and Dehejia are suggesting Canadian politicians are using this opportunity and plight of the farmers to endear themselves to Sikh-Canadians and a big Punjabi diaspora in Canada to win votes. 

India Reacts

India is held by many international relations experts to be a counterweight to China. Of late, India and China have been engaged in a tense border conflict in the Ladakh region and India’s ruling party has previously told The Epoch Times that the world should be concerned about Beijing’s aggressive behaviour toward it. 

India is key to deterring threats from China in the vital Indo-Pacific region, according to many defence and national security experts. They recommend Canada develop relationships with market democracies especially in the Indo-Pacific, such as Japan, South Korea, and India, as a matter of principle. 

Trudeau’s comments sparked a swift rebuke from India on Dec. 4.

“Comments by the Canadian Prime Minister, some cabinet ministers, and Members of Parliament on issues relating to Indian farmers constitute an unacceptable interference in our internal affairs,” according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. “Such actions, if continued, would have a seriously damaging impact on ties between India and Canada.”

Delhi’s concern is two-fold. First, Modi wants to liberalize the agriculture sector. Second, India’s embassies and consulates are concerned for their staff since there is the threat of Sikh separatists for the Khalistan region, with support from Pakistani catalysts, joining demonstrations and turning them violent.

Back in 2018 , Trudeau said Canada won’t support Sikh separatists, which are in the minority among Sikhs.

The diplomatic row may have already had a consequence. 

India’s external affairs minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who has frequently met with Canadian officials over the past couple of years to discuss a wide range of issues, did not attend the the 12th call of the Ministerial Coordination Group on COVID-19 with counterparts from Brazil, Germany, Italy, Mexico, South Africa, and the United Kingdom on Dec. 7, which was hosted by Canada 

The Indian High Commission confirmed to The Epoch Times that his absence was due to scheduling issues and his intent to not attend was reported in Indian media shortly after Delhi’s reprimand of Canada.

Big Opportunity for Canada

Agriculture employs over 50 percent of Indians, but only generates 15 percent of GDP. 

The middlemen in India’s agricultural system face elimination under Modi’s reforms and are mobilizing the dependent farmers to make a political statement against Delhi, said Majumdar.

“It is clearly in the Canadian interest to see that this new era of price controls, be replaced with one that allows farmers to earn income they deserve,” Majumdar said.

A break from the socialist agriculture system that affects half of India’s 1.35 billion people could lead to greater prosperity in the long run, both for Indian farmers and the rest of the world, he added.

With the removal of price controls, farmers would be incentivized to produce more on a given plot of land. “The Indian economy is still frozen in almost a feudal time,” Majumdar said.

“Exposing growers to liberalized agricultural markets has a huge potential to increase farmers’ incomes,” wrote Vijay Sappani, an angel-investor, entrepreneur, and founder and CEO of Ela Capital Inc., a global boutique investment and advisory services firm, in a Globe and Mail oped.

Canada, with its knowledge of the food and agriculture sectors can help India adopt best practices, Sappani wrote.

“This makes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent remarks on the farm reforms perplexing. By appearing to voice support for the protesters, Mr. Trudeau risks further damaging already strained ties with India and losing out on trade opportunities that Canada has aggressively advocated for at the World Trade Organization,” Sappani wrote.

Canada’s most recent round of trade negotiations with India took place in 2017, and the amount of commerce between the two has gradually increased. In 2019, India was Canada’s ninth most important export market—up from 10th in 2017—and 13th largest import market. 

Two-way merchandise trade between the two countries totaled $10.1 billion in 2019.

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