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Trudeau talking trade but thinking politics on state visit to India next month

Last Updated Jan 22, 2018 at 3:20 pm PDT

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks across a snow covered tarmac towards his plane as he departs Ottawa for Davos, Switzerland for the annual World Economic Forum on Monday, January 22, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

OTTAWA – Trade might be on the agenda but politics won’t be far from his mind when Justin Trudeau makes his first trip to India as prime minister next month.

Trudeau is scheduled to be in India Feb. 17-23, with stops planned in Agra, Amritsar, Mumbai and New Delhi.

The state visit is being billed as a chance to make business connections and expand trade, as well as to promote the rights of women and girls.

Kasi Rao, CEO of the Canada India Business Council, said 11 Trudeau cabinet ministers have been to India for various trade trips in the last two years, proving Canada and India already have a “sustained engagement.”

“However there is simply no substitute for a prime ministerial visit,” said Rao.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in India twice in 2009 and 2012.

Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have spoken several times since Trudeau was elected in 2015, but only by phone or on the sidelines of international meetings such as last year’s G20 summit in Germany or the April 2016 nuclear safety summit in Washington, D.C.

Modi visited Canada in 2015 but it was prior to Trudeau’s election.

Canada and India have been working on trade agreements for more than seven years, with the 10th round of negotiations towards a comprehensive economic partnership taking place last summer in Delhi. Still, it seems such a deal is a long way off.

Harry Sharma, manager of the Canada India Centre for Excellence at Carleton University, said the “two sides are getting closer” but there are still some pretty major obstacles to overcome. Everything from Canada allowing more access for Indian professionals to intellectual property to agricultural protections and subsidies are still issues, he said.

On this trip, Sharma thinks Canadian technology for clean drinking water, renewable energy and an entrepreneurship program to support women will be high on the list of trade discussions.

Trade between Canada and India has doubled since 2010 – with two-way trade growing from $4 billion to $8 billion. India is now in the top 10 export markets for Canada. However exports to India — which include things such as coal, diamonds, and pulse crops like peas and lentils — still make up less than one per cent of all Canadian exports and just one-fifth of what Canada exports to China.

Rao said there is positive movement on trade but the bar was so low to start with, even a doubling isn’t taking things to a big level.

Sharma said Trudeau will be well received in India, a country where his celebrity precedes him.

But for Trudeau, a good visit to India is about more than expanding trade. About a dozen Indo-Canadian Liberal MPs are expected to join Trudeau on the trip and the attention it will receive in Indian media both in Canada and elsewhere could be helpful come election time in 2019.

“Canada is home to over a million Indo-Canadians with very strong political representation now and this will definitely be helpful politically speaking to the prime minister and his party if he is seen to be going to the right places in India,” said Sharma.

The right places will include the Golden Temple in Amritsar in the Punjab region, which is the holiest site for the world’s Sikhs. While Sikh’s make up a small fraction of India’s 1.3 billion people, in Canada they are a far bigger influence. The temple is on Trudeau’s itinerary.

Sharma acknowledged there are some tensions that might come up surrounding a belief among some Indian politicians that Trudeau is too tight with Sikh separatists in Canada.

In the 2016 census, 1.4 million people, about four per cent of Canada’s population, named East Indian as their ethnic origin. Their political influence in at least half a dozen ridings in suburban Toronto and Vancouver can be a deciding factor in elections.

— follow @mrabson on Twitter.