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The west’s Modi problem

On September 10, Narendra Modi led Joe Biden, Rishi Sunak, Justin Trudeau and other world leaders on a morning wreath-laying visit to Rajghat, a New Delhi memorial to India’s slain independence hero Mahatma Gandhi. 

The spectacle, on day two of the G20 summit, of the Indian prime minister leading the world’s most powerful people, either barefoot or slippered and wearing shawls, produced striking images that reinforced both Modi’s image domestically and India’s ascent globally as a diplomatic and economic power.

But behind the scenes, a conflict was brewing that within a week would escalate into an acute diplomatic crisis, alarming India’s western allies, and raising fundamental questions over the image the country curated at the summit of itself as vishwaguru, or teacher to the world. 

Later that day, Modi and Trudeau held a “pull-aside” talk where the two leaders exchanged sharp words.

Modi confronted Trudeau about “anti-India activities” among Sikh separatists in Canada, who favour creating an independent state of “Khalistan” in India’s Punjab. These “extremist elements” had incited violence against diplomats and missions, he charged, “threatening the Indian community in India”.

Back home in Ottawa this Monday, Trudeau dropped his own bombshell into Canada-India relations by publicly announcing that Canadian intelligence had “credible allegations” that Indian agents were involved in the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist shot dead in a Vancouver suburb in June. 

The Financial Times reported early on Friday that, even as they were heaping praise on Modi for hosting a successful G20, Biden and other western leaders privately raised concerns about Canada’s allegations with the Indian leader during the summit. 

Narendra Modi, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Joe Biden of the US and Rishi Sunak of the UK in Rajghat. The US has invested in bolstering relations with New Delhi as part of its strategy of enhancing relationships in the Indo-Pacific © Kenny Holston/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Canada and India have now both expelled diplomats and India has stopped providing visas to citizens of a country with one of the world’s largest Indian diasporas, with about 700,000 Indian citizens and another 1.6mn people of Indian descent. Both countries on Thursday claimed their diplomats in each other’s countries faced security threats. India has dismissed Canada’s accusations of involvement in the killing as “absurd”.

But something bigger than bilateral relations between two G20 members is now at stake: the all-in geopolitical bet the US, UK, Australia, and other countries are making on India as a democratic ally that also opposes China. 

India is becoming one of America’s most important foreign partners as a bulwark against China. The US has invested heavily in bolstering relations with New Delhi as part of its broader strategy of enhancing relationships in the Indo-Pacific region. The push has accelerated this year, with partnerships spanning areas from defence and high-tech manufacturing to artificial intelligence. Biden granted Modi the high diplomatic honour of a state dinner at the White House in June.

When and if evidence emerges that might support Canada’s claim, Washington will face a balancing act between its closest neighbour and a significant rising ally.

Other allies are in a similar bind. The UK is in advanced stages of negotiating one of its biggest post-Brexit free trade agreements with New Delhi. India is the world’s largest importer of arms, and Emmanuel Macron of France, now India’s second-largest arms supplier, in July invited Modi as his guest of honour at its Bastille Day parade. India is a member of the Quad strategic security initiative, which also includes Australia, the US, and Japan.

Modi and Emmanuel Macron on Bastille Day in Paris this summer. France is now India’s second-largest arms supplier © Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

These countries have vested much of their geopolitical wager not only in India, but in the person of Modi.

During nine years in office, Modi has built a formidable political base and sought to project greater power overseas, including in its intelligence operations. But the Indian leader and key figures in his Bharatiya Janata party have also been accused by critics both in India and abroad of stoking sectarianism, undermining India’s secular values and hindering or targeting journalists and civil society groups — actions that have led some of its partners to question its democratic standards.

India’s western democratic allies have mostly kept their comments about these concerns compartmentalised — aired in brief remarks or behind closed doors — in the broader interest of a valued strategic relationship. But if Canada’s allegations of an Indian state-backed, extraterritorial assassination are found to be true, they will struggle to keep quiet. 

“I’m concerned that if the India-Canada imbroglio continues to escalate, then we could see western nations begin to choose sides, and it is likely to be Ottawa [that wins], placing New Delhi’s partnerships with countries like the US, Australia, and UK in greater jeopardy,” says Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at Rand Corporation. “The rationale would be that Modi and his BJP government are simply untrustworthy.”

A wider schism would also threaten India’s slow move into the US orbit as tensions with China escalate. This “wouldn’t be a good outcome for all concerned”, Grossman adds, “especially against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive China in the Indo-Pacific and globally”.

Making the challenges even more fraught, Indian public opinion in a country of 1.4bn people has mostly rallied behind Modi in demanding evidence from Canada to support its claims.

Many Indians are especially sensitive to foreign criticism, but Trudeau’s allegations dropped at an unusually delicate time, days after India’s shining G20 moment and months ahead of a general election in which Modi will be campaigning in part on his efforts to lift India’s international standing.

Prime Minister Trudeau announced this week that Canadian intelligence had ‘credible allegations’ that Indian agents were involved in the assassination of a Sikh separatist in Vancouver in June  © Blair Gable/Reuters

“They are snuffing out the afterglow Modi had enjoyed following his successful shepherding of the G20 summit,” says Lisa Curtis, an India expert at the CNAS think-tank in Washington.

India’s western partners must consider the “solid reasons” why it is a valued ally, says Nirupama Menon Rao, a former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to the US and China. “India has shown itself to be a solid, dependable, trustworthy and dependable partner, and it has many attributes that make the relationship important for the rest of democracy.”

She adds: “That is not to be trifled with.”

Rising tensions

For Canada, the stakes could not be higher: it is now at odds with the world’s two most populous countries. It already has a poor relationship with China, the main focus of a public inquiry it launched this month into foreign interference in recent elections.  

Ties with India were already frayed before this week’s bust-up. Trudeau had been a relative rarity among G20 leaders willing to openly criticise the Modi government’s policies, as he did during 2020 protests in which farmers, many of them from Punjab, torpedoed the prime minister’s planned agricultural reforms.

India, in turn, had long accused Canada of harbouring extremists under the banner of free speech, including Sikh “Khalistani” separatists who have staged unruly protests outside Indian missions and threatened Indian diplomats in Canada. 

A breakdown in relations with India could be costly. Canada’s bilateral trade in goods and services with India exceeds $16bn, and Canadian pension funds have invested more than $55bn in India, according to India’s high commission in Ottawa. The Trudeau government froze talks on a free trade agreement with India after the G20 summit, one working day before Trudeau made the allegations.  

Modi addresses US Congress in Washington earlier this year. Until he was elected prime minister, he was denied a visa to visit the US over his alleged failure to stem communal violence in India © Pedro Ugarte/AFP via Getty Images

“Canada is in a difficult position here,” says Vincent Rigby, Trudeau’s former national security adviser. “I don’t think they had a choice but to come out. Ultimately, if another country does this on your soil, you have to hold them to account, but Canada doesn’t hold a lot of cards. I think India holds all the cards.”

Canada’s western allies were initially circumspect in their response. UK foreign secretary James Cleverly said that Britain had been in touch with Canada about the “serious allegations”. Australia said it had raised the issue with New Delhi.

The Biden administration has faced questions about why it had not been more vocal in the aftermath of Canada’s explosive claim. The morning after Trudeau made his spectacular allegation, the White House said it was “deeply concerned” about the situation. People familiar with the administration’s thinking say the US had not wanted to say anything that might be construed as meddling in an ongoing Canadian investigation. 

But as the week proceeded, the White House has been forced to become more forthright in its support for Canada. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said on Thursday that no country got a “special exemption” for the kind of actions that Trudeau alleged: “Regardless of the country, we will stand up and defend our basic principles,” he said. He rejected the notion that there was a “wedge” between the US and Canada over the issue. 

However, the allegations have created discomfort for the administration by reviving questions that were asked when Modi visited Washington in June about why it was not taking a tougher stance on human rights in India.

Mourners carry the coffin of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, British Columbia, in June. Canada’s ties with India were already frayed before this week’s bust-up over the activist’s killing © Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/AP

These concerns have dogged Modi for almost two decades. Until he was elected prime minister, he was denied a visa to visit the US over his alleged failure to stem communal violence when he was chief minister of Gujarat.

But Curtis at CNAS says she does not believe the allegations will have a long-term impact on US-India ties because the Biden administration has invested so heavily in enhancing its relationship with India under Modi. 

“Only if Prime Minister Trudeau releases credible evidence of Indian involvement might Biden respond,” Curtis says. “Even then, the Biden team, which sees India primarily through a China prism, would seek to limit the fallout and keep relations on a relatively even keel.” 

The narrow path being trod by India’s western partners might be harder to toe if more damaging revelations emerge.

While Trudeau has been vague about what intelligence it has, Canada’s state broadcaster CBC, citing unnamed government sources, reported on Thursday that officials had “amassed both human and signals intelligence” around Nijjar’s death for months, including communications involving Indian officials. The government also sought New Delhi’s co-operation in the investigation before making its claims, CBC said. 

While India’s foreign allies weigh their words, there is no sign of any domestic blowback for Modi. By Friday, Indian news channels, many of which mostly take a nationalist and pro-Modi line, had moved on to other stories, including images of women cheering the prime minister in parliament after his government won overwhelming support on Thursday for a bill reserving a third of seats for female MPs. 

“This highlights the inherent tensions in the burgeoning partnership between the west and India,” says Hervé Lemahieu, research director with Australia’s Lowy Institute. “There are still big differences between how the west views the world and India views the world, and that will continue to be a source of tension in years to come.” 

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