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On Monday, the dozens of Canadians watching question period on CPAC happened upon the political equivalent of a solar eclipse: agreement between Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre. After the prime minister dropped the bombshell accusing India of being involved in the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, Poilievre responded with an uncharacteristic outburst of agreeability. "If these allegations are true, they represent an outrageous affront to Canada, to Canada's sovereignty," he told the House. "Our citizens must be safe from extrajudicial killings of all kinds, most of all from foreign governments.”
This detente lasted less than 24 hours. On Tuesday, the more familiar version of Poilievre was back in action, telling reporters that “the prime minister hasn’t provided any facts.” His MPs were also silent during an emergency debate later that day on India’s alleged attack on Canadian sovereignty. That prompted NDP MP Heather McPherson to wonder if this was because the Conservatives didn’t want to draw attention to former prime minister Stephen Harper’s relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi, after all, isn’t just the leader of the “world’s biggest democracy,” as new MP and long-standing Harper ally Shuvaloy Majumdar tweeted last week. He’s also a key member of the International Democrat Union (IDU), the alliance of right-wing political parties that Harper has chaired since 2018. “The most significant leader of India since Independence, my friend @narendramodi is shaping every conversation on geopolitics & the global economy,” Harper tweeted in 2019. “For India to realize its potential, it needs the courageous & visionary leadership of Prime Minister Modi. Proud to stand with him.”
Not everyone is so generous with their characterization of the Indian president. As The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner wrote in March, “Over the course of Modi’s premiership, which began in 2014, he has turned India into an increasingly illiberal democracy. Vigilante attacks on religious minorities have increased markedly, the ruling party has taken steps to strip citizenship from Indian Muslims, and the historically repressed Muslim-majority state of Kashmir has faced even harsher crackdowns.”
That pales in comparison to allegations about his conduct as the chief minister of Gujarat and his role in the 2002 sectarian riots that left more than 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslims (Modi is Hindu). India’s own Supreme Court once described him as a “modern-day Nero” and the United States banned him from visiting because of his apparent role in the violence.
A new BBC documentary on Modi’s role in the riots included a previously unseen British government report that “found Modi responsible for the violence and described the riots as having the ‘hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.’” Jack Straw, the U.K.’s foreign secretary at the time, said, “These were very serious claims that Mr. Modi had played a proactive part in pulling back police and in tacitly encouraging the Hindu extremists.”
Like so many on the right, Harper and his IDU allies are willing to look past this part of Modi’s story. Why? As Aditya Chakrabortty wrote in The Guardian, “Modi bears a responsibility for some of the worst religious violence ever seen in independent India — but there’s nothing like looking like a winner to attract apologists.”
The same logic seems to apply to Hungary’s Viktor Orban, another high-profile IDU member whose conduct might best be described as “fascism-curious.” Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of sociology at Princeton and an expert on Hungarian politics and constitutional law, described him in an interview with The New Yorker’s Chotiner as “the ultimate 21st-century dictator,” one who wields economic power and control of the media rather than brute force to serve his agenda.
That didn’t deter Harper from enthusiastically congratulating him in 2018, and the criticism he received for that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to press for closer ties between Canadian conservatives and Orban’s Fidesz party in 2023. One wonders how closely they’ll be studying Orban’s track record of surveilling journalists and undermining judicial independence, and whether they’ll want to apply those lessons here at home.
Stephen Harper may have retired from office, but his influence on Canadian politics remains. What should we make of his friendship with authoritarians like Viktor Orban and Narendra Modi, and why have his fellow conservatives been so quiet about it?
For now, there are plenty of important conversations to be had about India’s intervention in Canada and what ought to be done about it. But one of them has to include an examination of the conservative movement’s embrace of people like Modi and Orban and what it says about their own values and priorities. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in 2021, Orban’s appeal isn’t just about his overtly anti-immigration policies or social conservatism: “It’s that his interventions in Hungarian cultural life, the attacks on liberal academic centres and the spending on conservative ideological projects are seen as examples of how political power might curb progressivism’s influence.”
How far are Canada’s conservatives willing to go, and how much illiberal behaviour are they willing to look past in their friends, to achieve those outcomes here? For better or worse, I suspect we’re all about to find out.