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For Harper and India's Modi, deeper ties are a win-win

  John Ivison | April 10, 2015 11:07 PM ET

  National Post

  On March 20, 2011, during the Cricket World Cup match between India and the West Indies, the Conservative Party ran a television ad aimed at wooing the country's more than one million Indo-Canadians.

  Over a series of images - from the ill-fated KomagataMaru to a Sikh soldier during the Second World War; from the Conservative South Asian caucus to Stephen Harper at Amritsar's Golden Temple - viewers were told Indo-Canadians have helped build Canada. They were told things haven't always been fair, but that the Conservatives recognize their sacrifice and have looked out for their interests by increasing immigration and trade with India. The Conservatives, they were told, were the only party to fight for "our" values - belief in hard work and family.

  The ad was part of the party's "Breaking Through - Building the Conservative Brand in Cultural Communities" strategy.

  It was spectacularly successful.

  In essence, it said there are lots of ethnic voters (more than 700,000 Indo-Canadians in Toronto and Vancouver alone); there will soon be quite a few more (33,085 new Indians became permanent residents in 2013); and they live where the Conservatives need to win (the suburbs around Canada's biggest cities).

  Of the Top 10 ridings where ethnic groups accounted for more than 20 per cent of the total population, the Conservatives won seven in the 2011 election.

  They include Brampton-Gore-Malton (sports minister BalGosal) and Brampton-Springdale (Parm Gill).

  In 2004, the Conservative Party was averaging 12 per cent support in ridings with more than 40 per cent South Asian voters. By 2011, it had won many of those seats.

  That didn't happen by accident. Harper was central to the effort of re-branding the party - through his 2008 apology for the Komagata Maru incident, in which Sikh emigrants were refused entry to Canada and sent back to Calcutta, and his 2009 visit to India.

  As Harper awaits this week's visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it remains to be seen if he can repeat the feat. The large Sikh community has never displayed the same enthusiasm for the Conservatives as Canadian Hindus. Photo opportunities with an Indian prime minister will not endear Harper to those who believe the Indian government tarnished itself by labelling all Canadian Sikhs terrorists after the Air India bombing.

  The Prime Minister's tilt at niqab wearers has upset Indian Muslims and will not help his government's multicultural credentials with other minorities.

  "Harper has overplayed his hand with minority communities and essentially told all Muslims, 'I don't want you to vote for me,' " said one Indo-Canadian businessman. "He'd have been better off sticking to hard mathematics - asking them, 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?'"

  Still, being pictured next to a man being hailed as a potentially transformational leader of the world's largest democracy is unlikely to hurt Harper's chances of re-connecting with Indo-Canadians again during this year's election.

  While there are obvious and important foreign policy considerations, this is a visit with clear domestic political implications.

  By contrast, this is very much a sales trip for the Indian leader.

  Modi is visiting France, Germany and Canada to let them know his country is under new management and open for business with its first majority government in 30 years.

  Part of his mission is to advance India's purchase of nuclear reactors and fuel, after being shut out for years because of its weapons program. A 2008 agreement with the United States gave access to foreign suppliers and Modi hopes to secure a uranium import deal. Cameco Corp. has been holding talks with the Indian government about a long-term supply arrangement.

  There may be other benefits for Canada, for example, allowing Canadian visitors to obtain visas at Indian airports. Canada was left off the list of 43 countries that were added in November - an omission blamed on frosty relations since the 1985 Air India bombing.

  That was, it seems, then. Modi will be hoping for a repeat of the hero's welcome he received in the U.S. last year, where he was feted by 18,000 Indo-Americans at Madison Square Garden.

  He will meet Harper in Ottawa Wednesday, before travelling to Toronto for a speech and meetings with business leaders, and then to Vancouver.

  Both leaders have much to gain from the continuing warming of relations between the two countries.

  A win-win visit may even kick-start a trading relationship that, while it has grown by a third since 2010, still accounts for just $6.3 billion a year.

  Modi will pitch his "Make in India" campaign, aimed at turning his country into a global manufacturing hub.

  Harper will point out Canada can provide much of what India needs in the coming years - from food security, energy, infrastructure and education. The two countries have been negotiating the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement - a giant free-trade deal - since 2010, but trade sources suggest there is unlikely to be any announcement next week. Ed Fast, the trade minister, was in India last month wrapping up the ninth round of negotiations, but the benefits of that deal will only be felt years from now.

  "This is the next jewel in Harper's trade crown," said one Indo-Canadian businessman.

  The PM will be hoping the electoral benefits of being seen in the vicinity of India's "rock star" prime minister are felt more immediately. harper-and-indias-modi-deeper-ties-are-a-win-win

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