Behind the engagement with India

Posted by admin on Mar 30th, 2011

By Carl Meyer, The Embassy, Mar. 30 2011

Indo-Canadians have little doubt the Asian country’s inclusion in the budget was the latest effort to win their votes.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper kicked off Campaign 2011 by strolling onto a stage at the Pearson Convention Centre in Brampton, Ont., on March 27, he must have been hit with a particularly strong case of déjà vu. The Conservative leader had stepped foot in the exact same building days earlier to address a local business representative luncheon. There he talked at length about his government’s newest federal budget, which was unveiled several days later, and hinted that he expected the opposition to reject the document.

As it turns out, the budget quickly became the de facto Conservative election platform when opposition parties toppled the government in a non-confidence motion. Now here was Mr. Harper, stumping for votes in the same building, talking to members of the same community, about those same budgetary measures.

The luncheon, the budget and the campaign speech all had something in common. They represent the lengths to which Mr. Harper and the Conservative Party are prepared to go to court the South Asian vote. That convention centre is smack in the middle of a swath of hotly-contested Liberal ridings with big South Asian populations, and South Asian voters are a targeted demographic in the party’s ethnic vote strategy, spearheaded by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who attended the rally in Brampton. The business groups were Indo-Canadian in nature, and the budget included an “India Engagement Strategy.”

But will the strategy work? With the first week of the campaign barely underway, it’s already shaping up to be a slugfest in those key ridings.

Currying favour

Since the last election there have been a slew of Conservative moves courting India and the Asian subcontinent. For example, on Mar. 4, Mr. Harper helped launch the Year of India, an umbrella event encompassing a big Bollywood show and a major Indian diaspora event in Toronto this June, among other items.

That came on the heels of the government’s launch of bilateral free trade talks in November, and the signing of a historic nuclear co-operation deal last summer, during a groundbreaking visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the edges of the G-20 summit. There have been other South Asian high-level visits and speeches.

Given this recent level of attention, perhaps it was no surprise that when the budget came down last week, it contained a page and a half on the government’s “India Engagement Strategy,” an unprecedented move during Conservative rule.

The budget spent six paragraphs discussing Canada’s engagement with the country, and even promised some funding—$12 million over five years for a competition to select a “Canada-India Research Centre of Excellence.” The budget said this is part of the Conservative plan to develop more “targeted” engagements with specific countries, rather than the wide-ranging Global Commerce Strategy that has been in place since 2007 and focused on a range of emerging economies.

“India is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and developing a focused strategy to enhance our bilateral relationship will result in a more effective and beneficial partnership,” the budget reads.

South Asian community media members say they aren’t bowled over by the fact the Conservatives decided to starting crafting their budgets to get in the good books with Indo-Canadian voters—mostly because they’re doing it with everything else already.

“Given the way this government has behaved, everything is done with a weather eye toward how it will play out in the politics,” said Sunil Rao, editor of South Asian Focus, a newspaper billing itself as “the voice of Brampton’s South Asian community.”

“On the one hand, it is obviously good for Canada, and good for Canadians of Indian origin,” he said. “At the same time, with this government, obviously there would be another ulterior motive as well, which would be the votes.”

The collective South Asian population is one of Canada’s largest. Documents accidently leaked from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s office in early March, the ones that describe an ethnic vote-getting strategy, point out that in 2017, 1.3 million people in the Greater Toronto Area will be South Asian compared to 900,000 Chinese.

“If GTA South Asians were to form a city, it would be the third largest city in the country,” reads one of the documents.

Rakhi Prabhakar, director of Asian Connections, a newspaper in Mississauga whose head office sits at the northern edge of her city just southeast of Brampton, said she also feels everything the government has done was “crafted with elections in mind,” including the inclusion of India in the budget.

She feels the budget deliberately did not contain enough measures for the opposition to support, and that it was created in the first place to become an election platform. In that sense, she says, the mention of India was clearly designed to woo voters.

The ethnic vote-getting strategy brings to mind an earlier revelation in the press that the Prime Minister’s Office is committing resources to communicate directly with ethnic media outlets as a way to reach key demographics. These communications officials routinely let ethnic media in on Ottawa happenings that aren’t publicized to mainstream media outlets and Parliamentary Press Gallery reporters. They also often schedule in-person meetings with ministers and sometimes Mr. Harper himself.

That ethnic media strategy dovetails with Mr. Kenney’s vote-getting strategy. For example, Mr. Kenney’s office put together a sample script for ads targeting Indo-Canadian voters, suggesting the Conservative Party is in line with Indo-Canadian “values.” A list of media outlets was included that would carry these types of advertisements to the South Asian demographic in the GTA.

One of the media outlets cited by Mr. Kenney’s office was The Weekly Voice, billing itself as “the newspaper for South Asians in GTA,” and which has its head office just down the street from Asian Connections. Its editor, Binoy Thomas, has no doubt his readership is being targeted for its votes. He agrees that the Conservatives were targeting South Asian voters in the budget, suggesting that “everything that a politician or a party does” involves having one eye on voters.

However, he does note that the Conservative attention to South Asia has been markedly different than that of the Liberals in the previous decade. In that sense, the budget’s inclusion of India was a “very clear indication of how Ottawa is changing.” As an example, he said that in the early 2000s, Liberals would scoff at his suggestion that Canada sign a nuclear deal with India to promote relations.

Perhaps more importantly, he says, is the fact India was mentioned but not China.

The Chinese vote is also highlighted in Mr. Kenney’s ethnic strategy, and discussed alongside the South Asian demographic. In the last two years, the Harper government has warmed up to China enough to engage in a similar level of courting and high-level official visits and speeches.

But Mr. Thomas feels Mr. Harper is “definitely closer to India than China.”

“Harper has made it very clear that he likes to deal with another democracy, so perhaps in some ways he is making a point by including in the budget who is his favourite,” he said.

The government also received significant praise for giving India so much play in the budget from trade and culture bodies, like the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce, and the Canada-India Foundation. Kalyan Sundaram, the latter’s executive director, says stronger ties with India would benefit the whole of Canada, not just South Asian voters—which is why he believes engaging India is far from a partisan issue.

“I don’t believe that any of the others will challenge [Mr. Harper] on this,” he said. “There may be differences of opinion on other issues, but this is somewhere where I believe everybody is in congruence.”

In fact, the theme of untapped potential was a major factor in many organizations that supported the India section in the budget when it was released. The Mining Association of Canada, for example, argues that the research centre could address the Canadian commercial gap in the country, the problems with foreign investment and bureaucratic drag, corruption, and the depressed growth rate of mineral consumption when compared to China.

‘They live where we need to win’

Much of Canada’s South Asian population is concentrated in Brampton and the surrounding area, and the city sits across two ridings that are both listed in the “top ten” federal ridings targeted by the Conservative Party, with “very ethnic” populations of 20 per cent or more. Both ridings are held by Sikh Liberal MPs, Gurbax Malhi and Ruby Dhalla. To the south of Toronto lies another Sikh Liberal MP, Navdeep Bains. Another targeted riding in BC, which has the highest proportion of Sikhs in Canada, is held by another Liberal, Sukh Dhaliwal.

“They live where we need to win,” Mr. Kenny’s presentation materials state bluntly, before stating: “We are losing.”

Ms. Dhalla won by 773 votes in 2008 and has been hit with a scandal involving alleged abuse of a nanny. The Conservatives are expecting to take her down, with fellow Indo-Canadian Parm Gill campaigning hard—and enjoying close, personal support from Mr. Kenney and the government.

As well, Mr. Bains will be facing off against a tough new Conservative candidate, a former popular Mississauga councillor, Eve Adams.

Still, the Conservatives say they supported India in the budget because it’s good for Canada, not because of any electoral politics.

Deepak Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, says when Mr. Harper gave a speech kicking off the Year of India celebrations in Ottawa, the prime minister gave him credit for focusing on India during the early days of 2006 when the Conservatives were forming government and building a policy platform on which to govern.

That look to India continued through last year, he says, pointing to the government’s throne speech in March 2010 that promised to continue “trade negotiations with the European Union, India, the Republic of Korea, the Caribbean Community and other countries of the Americas.” This reference was a signal that India would continue to be a priority to the Conservatives, he says.

“The prime minister’s always said that we have a lot in common with India, we share the same values, democracy, rule of law, human rights,” Mr. Obhrai said.

As for China, he argues money had already been allocated toward China-Canada relations, so the budget focused on India this year.

The Strategy in words

The following are selected paragraphs from the Conservatives’ India Engagement Strategy unveiled in their March 2011 budget:

In addition to the Global Commerce Strategy, the Government is developing a more targeted engagement strategy to forge closer ties with India across different sectors. India is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and developing a focused strategy to enhance our bilateral relationship will result in a more effective and beneficial partnership.

Specific initiatives will include: High-level engagement and branding of Canada in India; Market development by promoting Canadian innovation, bilateral investment, and closer business-to-business relationships; Public service engagement, including exchanges; Strengthening academic networks by building linkages between Canadian and Indian institutions and promoting Canadian universities in India.

As part of the Government’s wider India engagement strategy, Budget 2011 provides $12 million over five years for a competition to select a Canada-India Research Centre of Excellence, open to proposals in all areas of research. The centre will focus on creating partnerships that bring together key individuals and organizations from Canada and India, accelerating the exchange of research results, and increasing Canada’s international visibility and reputation as a research leader.

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