No doubt Prime Minister Trudeau hoped his state visit to India would leave a lasting impression, but this debacle of a trip is certainly not what he had in mind.
Frankly, this has been such a PR nightmare that one need only to refer to “that India trip” and for the foreseeable future we’ll all know exactly what that means.
There are indeed multiple storylines to this fiasco, but the one that trumps all others by far is the fact that a man convicted of the attempted murder of an Indian politician in B.C. three decades ago, and who had previously belonged to a banned Sikh extremist group, was invited to separate events on the PM’s tour.
How on earth does something like this happen? If we’re trying to foster closer economic and political relations with India, pretty much the worst thing we could do is to send a message that we’re cavalier about – or worse, cozy with – Sikh extremists. Job number one should be putting the Indian government at ease about such matters, and the Trudeau government accomplished the exact opposite.
The fiasco certainly made news here at home, but unfortunately for Trudeau — and by extension, Canada — the media in India picked up on it, too. The Times of India, for example, ran the story with this headline: “Dinner invitation to ex-terrorist clouds Canadian PM Trudeau’s visit.” Ouch.
WATCH BELOW: Convicted attempted murderer Jaspal Atwal attended events during Trudeau India tour
A story on one Indian TV news network referred to the controversy as “embarrassing,” and included the rather awkward clip of their reporter shouting the question “Mr. Trudeau, why did you invite a Khalistani terrorist for a reception?” Hard to imagine how it could get much worse than that.
And this was all so easily avoidable. Whatever background checks or vetting would or wouldn’t have otherwise happened in such circumstances, a simple Google search of “Jaspal Atwal” would have more than sufficed. In addition to whatever stories one might uncover about his 1987 conviction, there are much more recent stories about Atwal. In 2012, there was a huge outcry after Atwal was invited to attend the B.C. government’s throne speech. Is the slightest bit of curiosity too much to ask for?
Ahead of Friday’s meeting with India’s prime minister, there were furious attempts by the government to dig themselves out of this mess, which, in keeping with the theme of this trip, really only made matters worse.
WATCH: Coverage of Justin Trudeau’s tumultuous India trip
First of all, it was backbench Liberal MP Randeep Sarai who was thrown under the bus. He issued a statement that declared: “I alone facilitated this request to attend this important event. I should have exercised better judgment, and I take full responsibility for my actions.”
This excuse, though, doesn’t really explain how everyone else managed to miss the obvious red flags around Atwal. Moreover, it does not seem especially advisable to leave something so politically explosive subject to the impulses of a lowly backbencher.
After that explanation fell flat, “senior government officials” started leaking stories about how “rogue elements” within the Indian government “set-up” Trudeau for embarrassment by allowing Atwal into the country. Putting aside the bizarre paranoia implicit in this excuse, blaming the host country for your gaffe seems counterproductive, to say the least.
Amid the frantic search to find a scapegoat for this whole mess, veteran reporter Kim Bolan (who has covered Sikh extremism for decades and wrote a book about the Air India bombing) revealed Friday that information about Atwal was passed along to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service a week ago. That’s not the sort of thing that can be blamed on backbenchers or “rogue elements.”
WATCH: Trudeau responds to criticism over wearing traditional Indian garments
It would have taken a monumental success on this trip to even begin to undo the damage of this past week, but there’s really nothing of the sort to be found here. This was an unnecessarily long and expensive trip that never had a clear objective and that managed to step on every conceivable political landmine.
I had previously operated under the assumption that as gaffe-prone as Trudeau seems to be, he is the brand and the symbol of this government, and is surrounded by much smarter people. This India mess leaves us facing troubling questions: what if those much smarter people don’t actually exist? What faith can we have in the basic competency of this government?