By Rajan Philips –
As world leaders flew from one gathering (G20 summit in New Delhi) to another (UN General Assembly in New York), two side developments made headlines in the news media. Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau dropped a bombshell in a statement to parliament on September 19, that there were “credible allegations of a potential link” between Indian government agents and the killing of 45 year old Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June, near Vancouver.
Mr. Nijjar was born in India and fled to Canada in 1995 as a teenage refugee allegedly to escape a government crackdown on Sikh activists in Punjab. He worked as a plumber and was a community leader. In 2019 he became the leader of the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple in Surrey, Vancouver. He advocated Sikh separatism through non-violent means and was one of the organizers of the Khalistan Referendum campaign. He was killed by masked gunmen outside the Guru Nanak Temple.
The Indian government rejected Trudeau’s allegation as absurd and accused the Canadian government of not heeding India’s concerns over Sikh separatist activities in Canada. There have also been questions about Mr. Trudeau’s decision to make an open statement when he was not in a position share detailed information in public. Apparently, he was forced to go public with his allegation to pre-empt media outlets that were set to publish the story based on their own investigations. It is also known that Mr. Trudeau raised this matter with Prime Minister Modi during the G 20 Summit in New Delhi and asked for the Indian Government’s co-operation in investigating the killing.
The other headline news was about US President Joe Biden joining the striking auto-workers on their picket line in Detroit, Michigan. That is quite historic, not only for an American President but also for a head of state anywhere, including China. On Tuesday, September 26, President Joe Biden did something that no US President before him has done or would have thought of doing. He may have also set a precedent that future presidents will likely be forced to follow.
Biden and Trump
Biden flew from Washington to Detroit and joined the striking United Auto Workers (UAW) union members who were on a picket line outside a General Motors’ Redistribution Centre in Wayne County, Michigan. Donning a UAW blue hat, the President mounted a wooden platform and used a bull horn to tell the workers, “You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now. Then his middle class theme: “The unions built the middle class. That’s a fact. Let’s keep going.”
A core issue in the current labour dispute in the auto industry is the government mandated shift from gasoline-driven cars to electric vehicles (EVs). The shift is a key part of Biden’s signature legislative achievement, the euphemistically named Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which includes specific measures for combating climate change. The Biden Plan goal is to make half of all new vehicles sold in America to be zero-emissions vehicles by 2030. That means greater production of EVs by auto makers, along with government commitment to providing federal funding and tax incentives, and installing 500,000 chargers to make EVs accessible nationwide. More so in rural America, the bastion of the political right, where 20% of Americans live and account for 70% of road miles of national travel. Just like the political lopsidedness. Now to the strike dynamic.
America’s big three in automakers (GM, Ford and Stellantis, which owns Chrysler) are laggers in EV manufacturing. They lag behind Tesla, BYD Auto and the Volkswagen Group, the three global leaders, by quite a distance. As they plan to repurpose their production base to increase EV production, the big three face competition from foreign automakers who are also eligible for the IRA tax incentives so long as their factories are in the US, Canada or Mexico. Some of them, mostly Japanese firms, already have their bases in one or more of the three free-trade countries. Also, unlike the big three, the foreign firms and the EV manufacturers like Tesla do not have unionised workers.
The top three are insistent that they cannot afford to pay the current union demands for wage increases and benefits, given the level of investments required for transitioning to EV; nor can they be competitive with automakers without unionised workforce. On the other hand, the union claims are based on the sacrifices workers made during the 2007-2008 financial crisis in order to keep the automakers solvent and in business.
The workers now want restoration of overtime work and retirement benefits, ending of wage differences between contract and permanent workers, as well as protection against potential labour retrenchment as part of EV production. The huge profits that the auto companies made during the Covid pandemic and the inflated salaries and bonuses that flowed to company CEOs, are not lost on the unions and the workers. Nor are they unaware of the huge financial support and tax benefits the US government is giving the automakers to switch from gasoline to electric vehicles.
In the backdrop to the labour dispute, there are both political interests as well as technological implications. On the latter, industry observers are opining that the transition from gasoline to electric vehicles involves “the biggest technological transformation since Henry Ford’s moving assembly line started up at the beginning of the 20th century.” And the workers and their unions are determined not to get shortchanged a second time as they were at the last technological changeover, not to mention the start of the industrial revolution itself. However, there is a major difference between the age of Ford and the present time, and it is that the economy now is highly diversified and is not ‘overdetermined’ by a single industry.
And then there is politics, with the presidential election coming up next year. Regardless of the Republican primary clown show and Democratic party doubters, President Biden and Donald Trump would seem to have decided that they are the de facto candidates and that it is time to start the real campaign. After President Biden’s visit to the picket line of striking union workers, Donald Trump visited Drake Enterprises, a non-union auto parts supplier in Clint Township, Michigan. Trump’s pitch is of course diametrically the opposite. He wants union workers to peel away from their leaders and vote for him because he will save their jobs by removing the requirement for shifting from gasoline to electric vehicles.
The trouble with that reactionary approach is that Mr. Trump will not find any takers for it from any of the main automakers. But Trump being Trump, he is not interested in the fallout for the auto industry or the American economy, let alone climate change. He is only interested in using any slogan to win back the workers who voted for him in 2016 in the three battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump won all three of them in 2016 and lost them all to Biden in 2020. And Joe Biden will do everything to keep those states on his side of the tally. Including, joining a picket line.
Canada stuck between China and India
From the auto industry and presidential politics in the US, it is quite a stretch to comment on the recent spat between Canada and India over Sikhs and their politics in the two countries. But in the ‘globalized world’, everything is interconnected, hierarchically and horizontally. The new global order has been conceptualized in terms of a new contradiction between a new global Empire (of superpowers – past, present and wannabe) and the growing global Multitude, the masses.
One of the empirical processes driving the global multitude is the movement of people across nation-state boundaries. In this process, China and India are giant exporters of the multitude and Canada is literally caught up between them as one of the main recipients of global migrants. And the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that has more immigrant ministers than any other government in the world has become the object of derision and vilification both by India and China, as well as its domestic detractors.
For the greater part of this year the Trudeau government has been facing relentless criticism from opposition parties and the media for its alleged failure to deal with Chinese interference in Canadian elections and intimidations of Chinese Canadians who are opposed to the Chinese government and its representatives in Hong Kong. The criticisms became personal and right wing attacks targeted the Trudeau family as having a soft spot for China, even harking back to then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s historic 1973 visit to China as a breakout leader from the western world.
The critics conveniently forgot that for nearly three years (December 1, 2018, to September 4, 2021) the Trudeau government was delicately pre-occupied with getting the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig (the two Michaels), two Canadian citizens who were arbitrarily jailed in China, in retaliation to the detention of Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of the founder of the Chinese tech giant Huawei and its Chief Financial Officer. Her detention, while traveling through Canada, was in response to a US extradition request for allegedly violating US sanctions against Iran. All three were finally released following a tripartite understanding between the US, China and Canada.
There was a chorus of calls for an independent public inquiry into Chinese interference. After months of back and forth, the government and the opposition have agreed on the launching of a Public Inquiry into “Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions.” The inquiry will be led by an Appeal Court Judge from the Province of Quebec, and will cover not only China but also Russia and other countries with alleged interferences.
Just when the hullabaloo over Chinese interference seemed to be quietening down, Prime Minister Trudeau dropped his bombshell implicating Indian government agents in the killing of Sikh activist in Canada. Prior to that, Canadian intelligence and security officials have visited India multiple times for discussions with their Indian counterparts. The intelligence premise for Canada’s allegations came through the interception of communications between New Delhi and the Indian High Commission in Ottawa, reportedly by the old Five Eyes (comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US) intelligence network. Canada’s concerns were and are shared by its traditional allies. It is also reported that in the face-to-face meetings between Canadian and Indian officials, Canada’s allegations were not formally denied, in contrast to the vigorous rejections in India’s public statements.
After his explosive statement in Parliament, Prime Minister Trudeau has appeared to be trying to calm diplomatic waters by insisting that Canada is “not looking to provoke or escalate.” He has gone on to say, “We are simply laying out the facts as we understand them and we want to work with the government of India to lay everything clear and to ensure there are proper processes.” Further, “India and the government of India needs to take this matter with the utmost seriousness.” Similar diplomatic overtures are said to have emanated from the Indian side. After the initial furor, there seems to realization on both sides to let quiet diplomacy take its course.
The undiplomatic new element in the Sikh question is the Modi factor. After the 1980s flareups, political Sikhism and the enthusiasm for Khalistan have virtually disappeared in Punjab in India, where Sikhs constitute over 50% of the State population while accounting for less than 2% of India’s total population. There were vocal elements in the Sikh Diaspora, especially in Canada that has the largest Sikh population outside India (even though non-Sikh Indian Canadians outnumber the Sikhs by roughly 60% to 40%), but they were generally in a minority.
The current revival of Sikhism in the diaspora is generally attributed to the arrival of Narendra Modi as the new BJP Prime Minister in 2014, after a string of moderate BJP predecessors. The Congress Prime Minster for two terms before Modi was Manmohan Singh, a prominent Sikh Indian and a highly respected and non-controversial political leader. The Modi government’s crackdown on minorities in India is alleged to be resulting in large numbers of them leaving India for western countries. The activists among them allege that they are targeted for monitoring by Indian government agents. That is a different dimension to the current spat between Canada and India.