NEW DELHI/OTTAWA: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's long-time adviser Gerald Butts has accused the Narendra Modi government of actively trying to sabotage his February 2018 India visit, that was beset with controversies, in order to help his Conservative rivals.
The Canadian Prime Minister's visit to India was widely panned because of his dressing in traditional Indian attire, which was described by some as "too Indian for an Indian".
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In the same trip, the Canadian PM's wife Sophie Gregoire was photographed next to Jaspal Atwal, a Sikh terrorist convicted of trying to assassinate Punjab minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu in Vancouver in 1986. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and released on parole in the 1990s.
"We walked into a buzzsaw... (Narendra) Modi and his government were out to screw us and were throwing tacks under our tires to help Canadian conservatives, who did a good job of embarrassing us," Butts is quoted as saying in a new book by National Post political columnist, John Ivison, "Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister", scheduled to be released next week.
Atwal was invited on the India trip by Liberal MP Randeep Sarai.
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After the visit, in a background briefing arranged by Trudeau's office, a government official suggested that Atwal's presence was arranged by factions within the Indian government who wanted to prevent Prime Minister Modi from getting too cosy with a foreign government they believe is not committed to a united India.
India's Ministry of External Affairs in a statement had rejected as "baseless" the suggestion that the Indian government had any role in Atwal being invited to events that Trudeau attended during his India visit.
The Trudeau government's claims were dubbed a "conspiracy theory" by the opposition.
"Will the Prime Minister tell the house whether or not anyone in his office arranged organised or participated in the media briefing that provided to reporters that included the allegation that the government of India was somehow involved in his embarrassing blunder," asked Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer.
Despite Sarai claiming responsibility for putting Atwal on the invitation list, Trudeau corroborated the allegation that the Indian government had a hand in the affair by suggesting that it was "true".
"Our professional non-partisan service does high-quality work, and when one of our top diplomats and security officials says something to Canadians, it's because they know it to be true," Trudeau said about the allegations.
Trudeau's Security Adviser Daniel Jean told reporters that, as Ivison puts it, "elements within the Indian intelligence service may have been happy to see Atwal embarrass Trudeau for being soft on Sikh separatism".
An investigation later found that gaps in the vetting procedure for the events had let Atwal's name slip in unnoticed.
Butts was principal secretary to Trudeau at the time. He resigned his position earlier this year in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin controversy, reports the National Post. However, Butts has returned to the fold and will work on the Liberals' re-election campaign.
Butts says the photos of Trudeau and his family during the India visit were a problem.
"Nobody would remember any of that had it not been for the photographs. We should have known this better than anybody - in many ways we'd used this to get elected.
The picture will overwhelm words. We did the count - we did forty-eight meetings and he was dressed in a suit for forty-five of them. But give people that picture and it's the only one they'll remember," Butts told Ivison.
Butts's comments come ahead of a federal election in October.
The book details some of the controversial aspects of the trip - which cost more than $1.5 million - including flying in a Vancouver chef to cook Indian food in India.
Butts went on to say that Modi's intentions weren't the "core issue" with why the trip was so awfully received at home, though. It was the photographs of Trudeau and his family in traditional garb that seemed to resonate badly with voters.
Conservative leader Scheer's office would not offer any comment about the details on Wednesday beyond pointing to one of Scheer's tweets.
Tagging the Indian leader and quoting Butts, the tweet said: "There Trudeau goes again, blaming others for his own mistakes and poor judgment. This time it's @NarendraModi. Trudeau's failed leadership is no one's fault but his own."
"We will certainly be saying more about this in coming days," the National Post quoted a Conservative source as saying.
Guy Caron, foreign affairs critic for the NDP, cautioned in an emailed statement that Butts's comments weren't great for diplomacy. "These comments might explain why the PM's trip to India was a fiasco from the beginning," he said.
"It's not appropriate for the Prime Minister's former Principal Secretary to be making such comments while both governments are still in place. This does not help our diplomatic relationships."
Trudeau's office had no comment to make, said the Post.