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Indo-Canadian business leaders eager for visit by 'rock star' Indian prime minister Narendra Modi

  Brian Hutchinson | April 11, 2015 1:24 AM ET

  STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty ImagesWith Narendra Modi's election as Indian prime minister and his visit to Canada, one businessman says, "the stars are now all aligned" for a boom in Canadian-Indian investment and trade."


  VANCOUVER - Narendra Modi comes to Canada next week, marking the first bilateral visit to this country by an Indian prime minister since Indira Gandhi touched down in Montreal 42 years ago. Modi's trip has powerful Indo-Canadian entrepreneurs re-arranging their own travel schedules, so as not to miss the controversial, business-friendly politician.

  For Calgary-based tycoon Bob Dhillon, it's a can't-miss opportunity to welcome the man he identified years ago as India's best hope for economic reform. He's already met with Modi in India, several times.
  "I'm shortening my trip to China this week just to get to the state dinner with Modi and [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper in Vancouver," says the president and CEO of Mainstreet Equity Corp., a publicly-traded company with a $1.3-billion real estate portfolio. "Modi brings something not seen before in my lifetime. He's pro-business, pro-foreign investment, he has a successful track record. He's a rock star. I support him, absolutely."

  The sentiment is shared by other big names in the Indo-Canadian business community. "I'm booked to fly to Atlanta next week but I'm looking at Vancouver instead, to see Modi," says Aditya Jha, a prominent, Toronto-based Indo-Canadian philanthropist who made his fortune in the  ITsector."His visit could not have come at a better time."

Postmedia News/Files

  Postmedia News/FilesCalgary-based tycoon Bob Dhillon, second from right, with Stephen Harper on a trade delegation to India in 2009.

  Modi was elected with his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to form a majority government in India last year. After decades of false starts, the country of 1.3 billion people finally seems poised to emerge as a financial superpower, and as a bigger trading and investment partner with Canada. Along with his Canadian counterparts, Modi expects to see the value of trade between the two countries increased significantly from the current - and paltry - $6 billion a year.

  Prominent Indo-Canadians - and potential big investors - such as Dhillon and Jha could help his cause. Modi considers the Indian diaspora in Canada to be key allies, and has already forged strong relationships with certain business leaders, groups and politicians.

  Conservative MP Patrick Brown recalls his first encounter with Modi, during a trade-related visit to Gujarat in 2008. "At that time, there were a lot of politically-motivated allegations being made against Modi," says Brown, who is running for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leadership.

  In 2002, Modi was accused by some Indians of failing to quell anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, where he served as Chief Minister from 2001-2014; the same accusations still dog the 64-year-old politician. "[Canada's] Department of Foreign Affairs told me not to go visit him," says Brown. "I went anyway. Modi said he would never forget the gesture. He said he would never forget who his friends are."

  Brown has made 14 more trips to India, often meeting with Modi and discussing issues of mutual interest, such as finding ways to send more Indian students to Canadian universities. He has leveraged that relationship into support from Ontario's substantial Gujarati community. "I sold three times the number of party memberships as my [leadership] opponents, thanks to the Gujarati community," Brown says. "They tell me, 'We need Ontario's first Gujarati premier.'"

  Brown expects to attend a speech that Modi is scheduled to make next week at Toronto's Ricoh Coliseum. Almost 40,000 people have registered to attend the event, while there are just 11,000 seats available. Event organizers include the National Association of Indo-Canadians and the Canada India Foundation (CIF), whose board and executive members include some of Canada's most influential Indo-Canadian businessmen.
Skylink Group of Companies founder and CEO Surjit Babra is a former CIF chairman, as is Vancouver-based philanthropist and real estate developer BarjDhahan. Aditya Jha is a former CIF National Convenor, and Toronto-based pharmaceutical magnate Ramesh Chotai is a current board member.

  "We helped kick-start a lull in relations between our two countries," says CIF executive director KalyanSundaram, adding that his group's establishment in 2007 "parallels the prime ministership of Stephen Harper and Chief Minister Modi's ascendance in Gujarat. These three things go together."

  With Modi's election as Indian prime minister and his visit to Canada, he says, "the stars are now all aligned" for a boom in Canadian-Indian investment and trade.

  During his visit, Modi will probably also make time for members of Overseas Friends of BJP, a "social" organization with Canadian chapters that supports his political party. Aditya Tawatia heads the organization's Vancouver branch. While he says the organization does not raise funds for the BJP in India, it helps in other ways. "In the federal election last year, we sent messages across Canada, telling people we needed our party to take power," says Tawatia."We started before Modi was even a candidate." Once he declared, Tawatia recalls, the BJP campaign caught fire.

  Raising funds for political purposes isn't on Modi's Canadian agenda. But given Modi's "rock star" status at home and abroad, he could likely collect significant sums from an energized and affluent diaspora, should someone decide to pass the hat around.

National Post


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