Opinion-Policy Nexus

Social media is a faithless lover, as Justin Trudeau learned to his pain in India last week.

From the moment he was elected in October 2015, the prime minister was the darling of the web. With a few churlish (and generally right-wing) exceptions, social media loved him. He was so handsome, so virile, so articulate, so caring and compassionate – so unlike Donald Trump. He was stylish, and cool. Did you see his tattoo? Just look at his darling socks! What colour will he wear tomorrow?

All honeymoons, especially ones based on superficial and foolish perceptions, must come an end, though seldom as abruptly as Trudeau’s. The social media turned on a dime from enchanted lover to embittered ex. He  could do nothing right.

Three things happened during the week in India. First, there was the perceived “snub” by the prime minister of India – which was not a snub at all (a point I will return to in a moment). Second, there was sartorial overkill as Trudeau, his wife and three children appeared at public events wearing culturally sensitive outfits that social media critics unanimously agreed would have been more appropriate on a Bollywood set – “too Indian even for an Indian,” declared Outlook India, an online publication.

Third, there was the disturbing matter of Jaspal Atwal, a Sikh extremist who had been convicted of attempted murder in the 1986 shooting of a Punjabi political leader while on a personal visit to British Columbia. Although supposedly banned from entering India, Atwal somehow managed to get a visa and, thanks in part to the stupidity of a B.C. Liberal MP whose constituency includes a large population of Sikh voters, he managed to attach himself to the Trudeau entourage.

The incident reinforced a belief in Indian government circles that the Trudeau government, for reasons of domestic political advantage, is quietly sympathetic to Sikh separatism. At the very least, it revealed shoddy staff work by Trudeau’s PMO. Did no one think to plug Jaspal Atwal’s name into Google before inviting him?

Canadian officials tried to spin the controversy away by suggesting it was orchestrated by a rogue element within the Indian government that sought to embarrass Trudeau over his government’s soft line on Sikh extremism.

The Times of India, for one, was not buying the spin. The Trudeau visit, it reported online, was “a disaster that has little parallel in India’s recent diplomatic history.”

But back to the “snub” that started Trudeau’s fall from grace in the web world. When he arrived in India, his plane was welcomed by a junior minister, not by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, and he spent the first half of his stay touring the usual tourist sites with his family.

The same thing happened back in 1971 when his father made his first visit as prime minister to the subcontinent. Pierre Trudeau, still a bachelor in those days, stopped in India on his way to the Commonwealth Conference in Singapore that January. Before going, he contacted his old friend, James George, who was Canadian high commissioner to India. As George wrote in his memoirs, Trudeau asked him to arrange that the first four days of his visit be set aside for him to return to some of the places he had explored during his days as a student traveling the world.

As it happens, I was one of the reporters covering that 1971 trip. It was a great trip. As Justin would 47 years later, we saw the Golden Temple in Amritsar. We toured the Taj Mahal; on my office wall, I still have a photo of myself with two colleagues in front of that great white marble mausoleum in Agra.  And we visited the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges. Yes, and there were elephants back then, too, for a prime ministerial photo op.

After four days, we headed off to New Delhi where Pierre was greeted by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and they got down to the business of the visit.

No one suggested the Canadian prime minister had been snubbed. No one suggested he had taken a vacation at taxpayer expense.

Of course, there was no social media in those days. Good old days, as Justin might now appreciate.

Monday, February 26, 2018 - 08:53