Say “Trudeau” and “India” in the same sentence this week, and you’ll likely get a pained groan in response.
The Canadian Prime Minister’s week-long visit to India has kicked up a media furore which has even eclipsed “peoplekind” in terms of manufactured outrage. To hear it told by Canadian press, it was an unmitigated catastrophe, a diplomatic disaster from which we may never recover.
I followed his trip with some interest. I grew up in India before my family moved here, and any interaction between the two countries is fascinating for me. I was struck not by the “disastrous” nature of the trip at all, but the vastly disproportionate media response — which was overwhelmingly North American and propelled by a fundamental misunderstanding of Indian culture.
First, the press conjured up some antipathy between Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and Trudeau on the basis that Modi didn’t greet him at the airport. But that’s just standard protocol for diplomatic visits — Modi didn’t go see Chinese President Xi Jinping, either. The two leaders were unusually warm and friendly for the rest of the trip, with Modi even tweeting an old picture with Trudeau’s daughter. Even CBC reports that Indian officials were “bewildered by the ‘snub’ narrative.”
Then there was the costume show. Trudeau wore a dizzying array of gold-threaded Bollywood outfits, bindi and all, for which he was relentlessly criticized. It was derided as silly and over-the-top, not at all the sort of thing appropriate for a diplomatic meeting. Shree Paradkar, Toronto Star columnist, calls it “overkill” and “patronizing.”
But the Indian response to this, on Twitter at least, was a sort of amusement. Few Indians were outright angry, and I suspect it’s because his costumery was actually very much in the spirit of India: nobody does over-the-top quite like we do. Look at our weddings, our movies, our festivals — it’s all about flashiness, ridiculous ostentation, showboating. My own family’s house would be far too gaudy for Canadian tastes, our get-togethers too boisterous for Canadian standards. In a way, it’s actually nice to see our Prime Minister embracing a bit of colour and spice.
The prevailing narrative is that Trudeau has “embarrassed” Canada with his triviality on this trip — that he’s made us look bad to the world, but especially India.
And this, I think, is the most hilarious thing about the whole debacle: that most Canadians believe Indian politics are a sober, serious affair, predicated on democracy and driven by rationality.
This could hardly be further from the truth. Indian politics, in my experience, are a mess. It can be a whirlwind of corruption, bribery, caste-obsessed bigotry and religious fundamentalism. We were ranked as the most corrupt nation in Asia. And oh, Lord, if you want to talk about embarrassing politicians, I've got some news for you.
Now, there are a few noteworthy, serious, honest politicians in India (Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, for example, is famously transparent, hardworking and spartan in his habits).
But aside from them, Indian politicians are notorious for making outlandish comments which would be unthinkable in Canada. The Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s reigning party, is full of these gems: one minister claimed Gandhi’s image on the rupee devalued the currency, another claimed astrology was more reliable than science, and yet another advised Hindu women to have at least four kids to keep their numbers dominant. Modi himself once called a former UN diplomat’s wife a “50-crore girlfriend” (read: cheap) and stated he was happy that the “Bangladesh Prime Minister, despite being a woman, has declared zero tolerance for terrorism.”
By Indian standards, Trudeau's showboating is really quite tame; amusing, even appreciated, but hardly reprehensible.
From my perspective, Trudeau — flawed, but committed to social justice and reform — is infinitely more admirable, more dignified, than the BJP and their leader: strongman Modi, who "bears responsibility for some of the worst religious violence ever seen in independent India," writes Aditya Chakraborty in The Guardian. In Canada, I don't have to worry about my Prime Minister supporting an oppressive caste system, persecuting a minority population or collaring the press.
And if I have to endure Trudeau's Bhangra dancing in return, well, that's a small price to pay.