Justin Trudeau, Modi no-show and the protocol conundrum


New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s absence at the airport to welcome Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his arrival in New Delhi on Saturday has sparked questions over whether it was an intended snub.

Not so, says India’s foreign ministry. The rules of diplomatic protocol do not require the prime minister to personally welcome dignitaries at the airport, government officials said.

The rules stipulate that a minister in waiting greets the visiting leader and this is a courtesy. In Trudeau’s case, the rules were scrupulously followed, three officials separately said.

But that hasn’t stopped posts on social media from pointing out the contrast with how India welcomed some other world leaders. Modi was at the airport to welcome former US President Barack Obama when he landed in New Delhi in January 2015. Ditto when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Ahmedabad in September. More recently Modi extended the courtesy to his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu last month.

On all these occasions and some more—two visits by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi in February 2016 and January 2017 and one by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in April 2017—Modi was present at the airport. He also greeted some of them with what has now become his trademark hug.

To be sure, these have just been a few of the dozens of incoming visits since Modi took office in May 2014.

In Trudeau’s case, it was Gajendra Singh Shekawat, minister of state for agriculture, who received him and his family at the Delhi airport.

“Laid down protocol norms do not require the prime minister to visit the airport to receive visiting foreign dignitaries. Exceptions are made by breaking protocol norms for certain visiting dignitaries as a special gesture. Such special gestures are an oblique way of diplomatic signalling,” said Pinak Ranjan Chakravorty, former chief of protocol at the foreign ministry.

The speculation was sparked by reports that Trudeau attended events in Canada where Sikh separatist leaders were also present. The subject has been discussed in private conversations between Trudeau and Modi, according to Indian officials. Also fuelling Indian concerns are a motion tabled in the Ontario legislature last year to label the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as genocide and a recent move by more than a dozen Canadian gurdwaras to bar entry of Indian diplomats.

“India has gone strictly by the book” in welcoming Trudeau, said Vishnu Prakash, a former Indian high commissioner to Canada. “But the warmth in the relationship is missing. If you are seen hobnobbing with Sikh separatists, they will be emboldened,” he said, adding that India’s perception would be coloured by this issue that has implications for its integrity.

Upsetting India further has been the Canadian high commission’s decision to have Trudeau visit four cities prior to New Delhi, where, finally, he will hold talks with Modi on Friday. This is despite the advice of the Indian foreign ministry. Prakash acknowledged that it was not uncommon for foreign leaders to visit some other cities before starting on the formal leg in New Delhi. “But I cannot recall any foreign dignitary doing a four-city visit before meeting the prime minister,” Prakash said.livemint