The diplomatic tensions between India and Canada worsened after Canada’s withdrawal of 41 diplomats from India on 19 October, nine days after the deadline.
Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said India communicated its plan to remove diplomatic immunities unilaterally for all the diplomats concerned and their families.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remarked that India’s actions are “making lives difficult” for people from both countries and “hamper travel and trade and pose difficulties for Indians studying in Canada”.
The suspension of visa services for Canadian nationals by India last month has already disrupted travel.
Trade between countries is a paltry $8 billion, 0.7 per cent of India’s total trade in 2022-23.
Further, the Canadian delegation had already paused the trade talks a week before the G20 Summit. The next casualty in bilateral ties could be the education ties between both countries. Considering India’s unprecedented diplomatic offensive, what should be the limits of these punitive actions?
My argument is simple. Punish Canada until it bends. Why? Because Canada is the weakest link of the West which can be made an example to deter other US allies from exploiting anti-India separatist groups for domestic political gains. How? Weaponise India’s biggest strength: emigration to Canada.
For effectively closing the diplomatic row, India needs to define clear end goals. First, India must ensure that Canada retracts its allegations — as it made them in the first place — publicly.
Though it is unlikely that Prime Minister Trudeau will concede on his pro-Khalistani bend, India must impose high reputational costs to outweigh his long-term political gains from the radical outfits.
Second, India’s actions towards Canada should deter countries like United Kingdom and Australia, where violent anti-India separatist groups get sporadic political spaces in the name of free speech. India must safeguard against the growing Khalistani lobby in UK, that like Canada, could generate political capital before the British general elections in 2025.
Third, India must effectively communicate to the West that regard for its sovereignty is a non-negotiable for any strategic partnership to flourish. It could involve close cooperation with the United States on intelligence sharing about Khalistani outfits.
If Canada apologises publicly for its actions, it would be a credible show of India’s coercive diplomacy. It would deter other Western powers from mainstreaming anti-India separatist elements in their society. To meet these objectives, further escalation with Canada is a viable policy option for India.
Canada’s limited bilateral leverage over India leaves it with few options but to exert diplomatic pressure through the allies. Trudeau’s silly outreach to UAE and Jordan suggests that his closest allies have already dismissed his case, which is understandable.
India’s strategic salience makes it irrational for most Western countries to compromise their interests for a bandwagoner and alliance free-rider. The United States views India as a vital cog in its Indo-Pacific Strategy while France considers it a large arms purchaser. For the UK, India is an opportunity for free trade agreement, and for Australia, it is a net security provider in the Indian Ocean.
While India’s relations with the West are broadly symmetrical, Canada stands out as the weakest link with limited strategic value. So, India can afford to go hard on Canada. As India-Canada relations does not have any security implications for the West, a diplomatic escalation would be limited to bilateral tensions.
To this end, India should focus on curbing high emigration to Canada where many Indians travel for higher studies and employment. The economic prospects in Canada are getting dimmer year by year.
According to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Canada is expected to record the lowest per-capita GDP (gross domestic product) growth among 32 advanced economies in 2020-30 and 2030-60. So, Canada’s economic stagnation and the prospects of India’s rise imply that, unlike the past, settling in Canada would not be lucrative for Indians in the next few years.
In these circumstances, India needs to formulate a well-defined policy for controlling emigration today so that the youth is not burdened with student loan payments and financial hardships in their prime years. India exercises a significant lever on Canada’s university system because its students consist of about 40 per cent international students in Canada and send over $10 billion of capital inflow.
Thus, there is a moral and diplomatic imperative of India to curb the emigration to Canada, where economic opportunities are diminishing.
As a democratic country, India cannot forcibly dictate emigration pattern of its citizens. Nevertheless, the emphasis on diplomatic parity has resulted in inoperability of Canadian consulates which adversely affects the ability of Indian students to get Canadian visas. This will cause short-term inconvenience for students planning to travel but is a strategic move for the long run.
India can divert the student inflow from Canada to strategic partners like the United States, Australia, Singapore, Europe, etc, by expanding bilateral educational cooperation. In an extreme measure, India can consider a permanent shutdown of one consulate to further extend diplomatic parity. While India has two consulates in Canada (Toronto and Vancouver), Canada has three in India (Chandigarh, Mumbai and Bengaluru).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi once famously remarked, “Aapda ko avsar mein badle” (turn crisis into opportunity). The worsening of India-Canada ties is one such opportunity, where India can project itself as an astute, calculative, and if needed, a diplomatically coercive power.
Ambuj Sahu is currently pursuing his PhD in Political Science from Indiana University Bloomington (USA) and holds a B. Tech. in Electrical Engineering from IIT Delhi. He tweets @DarthThunderous.
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