At prime time on September 26, a television show on a pro-BJP news channel asked the question: #Is Canada the new Pakistan? The wild speculation was triggered by the charge levelled by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that there is a link between India and the assassins of a Canadian Sikh, who had been declared a terrorist by India. The situation suddenly positioned us against a G-7 nation of the West that is closely allied with the US. India, in response, accused Canada of being a safe haven for terrorists and extremists.
It is an intriguing diplomatic stand-off that will hopefully be resolved because thousands of Indians live and work in Canada and many more are headed there.
Yet, let us see the context. It is an election year in India and it is important to understand that a party as successful as the BJP works with base emotions and understands them well. So, if there is a perception that India is now tough enough to head to foreign shores and assassinate “enemies of the nation”, then it does no damage to the image of the BJP domestically. But with a difference: in this instance, BJP campaigners cannot take to the streets and claim we killed the terrorist in his home, as that would amount to admitting to an extra-judicial action on foreign soil.
That rhetoric was used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2019 election campaign after the alleged retaliatory strike against Pakistan in what is known as the Pulwama-Balakot cycle of events. His stock line then was “hum ghar mein ghus ke marenge (we will enter your house and kill you)”. The heightened nationalism that followed is believed to have flipped the mood for the Prime Minister and the BJP in that general election. But also, in that instance, 40 Indian soldiers died in Pulwama, Kashmir.
Canada, as a nation Indians aspire to go to, cannot quite replace Pakistan as the enemy. Yet, the narrative of a tough leader could be useful in some parts of north India in an election year. The aggression currently shown on loyal TV channels does suggest a certain signalling—although it could be dialed down should better sense prevail.
The harping on Khalistan is also a dangerous stoking of a sleeping beast, as it is by and large a dead issue in Punjab. Yet, Punjabi YouTube debates on the Canada-India stand-off are openly saying that the Khalistan issue will be used by the BJP for the 2024 election, by linking Canada’s Khalistan backers to Pakistan’s ISI and presenting Sikhs in a bad light. These are hot-headed, emotional debates, with Canada having the largest Sikh population outside India.
Another nuance to the conversation is that although the BJP prefers “Muslim-bashing”, it does not mind dragging Sikhs into the picture as it does not have any electoral stakes in Punjab now. One remembers that the party had described the agitation against the farm laws, which was strongly backed by Punjab’s farmers, as a “Khalistani conspiracy”.
Such conversations are troubling, more so because in 2022, we suddenly witnessed the mysterious revival of the Khalistan idea in Punjab with the arrival of a young preacher named Amritpal Singh, who had huge backing from the diaspora. He went to the extent of threatening the Home Minister Amit Shah, after which the Centre and Punjab State police arrested him in a joint operation on April 23 this year. Canada is one of the countries where large protests followed the arrest and threats were issued to Indian diplomats.
Given the sensitivities in Punjab, it is unwise for the BJP government to up the domestic rhetoric on Khalistan and Canada. The traditional diplomatic view, meanwhile, as a former Indian Foreign Secretary wrote in a national daily, is that India has taken a “reputational hit” right after the successful G20 summit in New Delhi.
For the 2024 national election, the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have decided that India’s standing in the world will be one of the campaign highlights. Vishwa Guru, which translates to world leader or world teacher, is a catchphrase today, although there is a certain ambiguity about whether India is the Vishwa Guru or if it is all embodied in the persona of the Prime Minister.
The fact that India had the presidentship of G20 this year helped in the optics and it is currently a crucial part of the BJP’s election propaganda, with accompanying claims that the nation’s standing in the world has improved because of the current Prime Minister. The point is not whether it is true or false but that it is believed by the BJP’s core constituency.
- If there is a perception that India is now tough enough to head to foreign shores and assassinate “enemies of the nation”, then it does no damage to the image of the BJP domestically.
- But BJP campaigners cannot take to the streets and claim we killed the terrorist in his home, as that would amount to admitting to an extra-judicial action on foreign soil.
- Narendra Modi has been able to use his control over media optics to deny charges of Chinese intrusion into Indian territory and still project himself as a tough leader.
- The Balakot airstrikes conducted by the Indian Air Force in Pakistan territory (but disputed by Pakistan, which says nothing happened) helped Modi enormously in the last general election.
Idea of a ‘muscular’ state
The BJP has always been ideologically committed to a strong muscular state. On May 11, 1998, less than two months after the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA came to power, India took the decision to carry out three nuclear tests in Pokhran, Rajasthan. In an operation code-named Shakti (meaning, strength) India declared itself the sixth nuclear weapons state in the world. The US imposed sanctions as did other countries, but in the domestic arena the BJP was gung ho. The post-Pokhran II period can be described as the first time the BJP began to use “hyper nationalism” to put critics on the back foot.
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Vajpayee would eventually go on to win a short duration war with Pakistan in Kargil. Narendra Modi has been able to use his control over media optics to deny charges of Chinese intrusion into Indian territory and still project himself as a tough leader. The Balakot airstrikes conducted by the Indian Air Force in Pakistan territory (but disputed by Pakistan, which says nothing happened) helped Modi enormously in the last general election. So, Modi knows the political utility of an external enemy.
But Canada is a different story. In today’s globalised world, we can have a war of words with Canada but the possible gains are not worth the risks involved. It’s possible that the BJP in the age of Vishwa Guru will see this.
Meanwhile, there is a very funny 1995 Michael Moore film titled Canadian Bacon that satirises US-Canada relations, and one of its plot lines is of an American who seeks to manufacture a war with Canada.
Saba Naqvi is a Delhi based journalist and author of four books who writes on politics and identity issues.