Cricket, Bollywood and the Taj Mahal: What’s on tap for PM’s trip to India

Click to play video 'Prime Minister Trudeau to focus on trade talks during India trip' Prime Minister Trudeau to focus on trade talks during India trip
Prime minister Justin Trudeau's is on his way to India for his first official visit to that country. He'll work on building relationships and trying to nudge ahead a trade deal with India that has been stalled since 2010. Abigail Bimman reports – Feb 16, 2018

Indian-born Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi is looking forward to a return trip to his native country – alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“This is a place I grew up in, this is a place I have family, this is a place I have friends and I am proud that I grew up in that land,” Sohi told Global News ahead of the eight-day trip. “Whenever I have the opportunity to go back to India, it allows me to reflect on my journey coming to Canada and how fortunate I have been.”

Sohi is one of four Sikh cabinet ministers in the Trudeau government. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, House Leader Bardish Chagger, and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains are travelling as well, along with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Science Minister Kirsty Duncan. There was so much interest in this trip from MPs, those who wished to join have to pay out of pocket and make it to India on their own.

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That interest is not surprising: there is a huge Indian diaspora in Canada, and it carries political clout. India is our second-largest source of immigrants, and an estimated 1.4 million people of Indian descent call Canada home.

READ MORE: As Trudeau pitches ‘progressive’ trade, will India be open for business?

“They’re important politically, they’ve been important for the Liberal party historically,” said Carleton University expert Vivek Dehejia. “And I think quite honestly, it’s playing more to the folks back home.”

“I think it’s largely symbolic. I mean it shows folks that, ‘Look, our prime minister cares about the country we came from,’” said Dehejia.

Government officials say the aim of the trip is to boost cultural and economic ties between the two countries. The agenda is broad-ranging, and includes meetings and events with business executives, youth and women (one of the goals is to promote female empowerment), stops at religious sites of numerous faiths and cultural sites. No major trade deal is expected.

The prime minister will visit five cities: New Delhi, Mumbai (sometimes known colloquially by its former name, Bombay), Agra (to see the Taj Mahal), Amritsar (the home of the Golden Temple, the holiest site for Sikhs) and Ahmedabad.

“Bombay is the financial capital but also it’s the capital of Bollywood,” said former Canadian ambassador to India, Stewart Beck. “Two things that are really important for the average Indian in terms of their culture: Bollywood is one, and cricket.”

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Beck said the visit to Ahmedabad, in Gujarat province, makes sense politically as it’s where Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his mark as chief minister. “The success of the Gujarat economy, it was basically the fundamental underpinnings of why he got elected,” said Beck. “People saw this as… if he could do this in Gujarat, he could do it for the country.”

But only one day is dedicated to official programming with Prime Minister Modi, and it’s in the capital New Delhi. Trudeau will also meet with Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, as well as the Indian vice-president and external affairs minister.

A Canadian government official says there are no plans to meet with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, even though the Hindustan Times is reporting Singh will accompany Trudeau to the Golden Temple.

Singh made headlines in India earlier this month and later in Canada for accusing the Canadian government of being sympathetic to Sikh separatists.

READ MORE: Sikh nationalism will overshadow Justin Trudeau’s trip to India: expert

WATCH: Sikh religious succession in India a non-issue to Canadians: Sohi

Click to play video 'Sikh religious succession in India a non-issue to Canadians: Sohi' Sikh religious succession in India a non-issue to Canadians: Sohi
Sikh religious succession in India a non-issue to Canadians: Sohi – Feb 7, 2018
Last year, Singh refused to meet Sajjan, and in an Outlook India article this month, he said: “On the face of it, there seems to be evidence that there are Khalistani sympathizers in [Cana­dian PM] Trudeau’s cabinet.” Both Ministers Sajjan and Sohi refuted the claims.
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Sohi says, for him, a successful trip will involve stronger ties between the two countries. He says Canada and India share a common goal of working to build a stronger middle class.

“As well as the people-to-people relationship,” he told Global News. “There are so many people of Indian background such as me, who have built their lives in Canada and are an integral part of Canadian society. I think that strengthening of a relationship will definitely help both countries.”

And on a personal note, if he’s lucky, he may get a visit with some family members, including his sister, if they can make it to one of the cities on the tour. Sohi is from the village of Banbhaura, where his parents were farmers. “People do feel pride that someone who has grown up in their village is in a prominent place in Canada.”

Trudeau will be accompanied by his own family – his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau will have her own agenda, and all three children will be there for the duration of the trip.