CHANDIGARGH, India – Stephen Harper is trying two different approaches to courting more Indian trade while on his tour of the country — the prime ministerial hard sell, and a soft sell that sometimes involves spicy food.
The soft sell was in full display Wednesday evening as Harper sat down to a meal on the sidewalk outside a strip-mall canteen in the Punjabi capital. He tapped his hands on his knees as a traditional dance troupe whirled and shouted around him in front of “Deluxe Dhaba”.
A noisy gaggle of local media clamoured to get past security and see the spectacle.
At the tables around him were members of the Indo-Canadian caucus and some of the Canadian business delegation accompanying him on this leg of his trip. Personal, familial connections between Canada and India are viewed as a critical calling card for those who would like to increase two-way trade.
Even the energetic local dancers plan on studying in Canada next year at the University of the Fraser Valley in B.C.
“Even in doing a regular business deal back home, you go golfing, you have dinners, you build that friendship and then the business comes and I think that’s part of what we’re doing here, is building that relationship overall,” said Tim Uppal, the minister of state for democratic reform whose parents are from this region.
Of course, visiting an area from which so many Canadians — and voters — hail suits Harper’s domestic interests as well. The Conservatives have won many ridings with the support of the Indo-Canadian community, including Ontario’s Brampton West, whose MP, Kyle Seeback, is along for the trip.
On his day-long stop in the Punjab, Harper also visited the historic Keshgarh Shahib gurdwara, a Sikh temple in the city of Anandpur, and the striking Sikh heritage centre designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. Again, dozens of local media were there to capture the events, as well as Indo-Canadian reporters travelling with him.
The hard sell on trade has come in a series of meetings with Indian government officials, but also during a speech to the World Economic Forum on Wednesday morning just outside of New Delhi.
The prime minister laid out reasons why trade between the two countries should be much more robust. India needs energy — Canada has it in spades. India needs many more educational institutions — Canada knows how to run them. Canada needs to broaden its trade horizons beyond the United States and Europe.
And there was a not-so-subtle warning to India about the cost of not letting trade and investment flow more easily. Bilateral trade sits at a mediocre $5.2 billion — the countries would like that to grow to $15 billion by 2015. They are still working on an investment protection and a free-trade deal.
“Canada understands that traditional economic linkages will not be sufficient to preserve our prosperity in this uncertain global economy,” Harper told the forum. “India, likewise, understands that while its aspirations are achievable, without the right policies and the right partners, a continuation of its high rates of economic growth is not inevitable.
“As I’ve said before, the untapped economic potential between us is massive and undeniable. But, massive and undeniable as that potential is, it will not develop itself.”
He joked later that Canada and India relations were like a Bollywood movie.
“Two young people meet,” he said to laughter. “They know they’re meant for each other, but they have obstacles to overcome.
“And, before the viewer loses interest, they do, in fact, overcome those obstacles and the happy ending ensues.”
Harper didn’t elaborate on what those obstacles are, but former trade minister Stockwell Day was more specific.
“It seems that in almost every area, no matter what you’re pursuing, there is a labyrinth of regulations and officials to deal with and rulemaking that’s accumulated over the decades…,” said Day, now chair of the Canada-India Business Forum.
“Millions of people have moved out of poverty in India, but much more could be done at a better pace.”
Harper’s last stop in India is Bangalore, the thrumming hive of high-tech and knowledge-based industry that has become India’s third-largest city.