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Justin Trudeau’s Celebrity Schtick Has Finally Blown Up in His Face

His Indian misadventure was an epic misfire.
Image via Reuters

Why did Justin Trudeau go to India? I am sure at this point that even the prime minister has been asking himself that question all week.

Nobody seems to know. It isn’t to ink any major trade deal—those negotiations have been going on since at least 2010, and there is no immediate end in sight. It was also suggested that this trip might be aimed at soothing Indian security concerns about Khalistani nationalism among Canadian Sikhs, or some other foreign policy purpose. And then there is the cynical hypothesis: that this is a royal family vacation on the public dime, largely undertaken to get lavish photo-ops for the next federal election. Harsh, admittedly—but it would explain why the Trudeaus brought their own celebrity chef.


Of course, as you would expect, the cynics were wrong: the photo ops were actually quite terrible. Trudeau apparently insisted on saving all his actual state-level discussions for the end of his trip, which sparked rumours among the international press that the Canadian prime minister was being “snubbed” by the Indian government. Then, the Trudeaus were dragged on Indian (and Canadian) social media because the whole family kept showing up everywhere dressed in elaborate Indian formal wear. Try imagining Indian PM Narendra Modi hanging out in Ottawa for a week alternately dressed like a cowboy or a Mountie or a French-Canadian biker, and you have some idea of how obnoxious it was to watch Justin Trudeau traipse around the subcontinent playing ethnic dress-up.

And then, somehow, things really came off the rails. Convicted attempted murderer and former Khalistani terrorist Jaspal Atwal showed up in several photos with Sophie Trudeau and Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi at a function in Mumbai. When it further turned out that Atwal had received a formal invitation to the Canadian High Commission dinner in Delhi, the Indian press exploded. If the prime minister actually was on that side of the globe to demonstrate how serious the Canadian government takes Sikh separatism, this is a Curb Your Enthusiasm-level trainwreck.

(One government source told CBC that Atwal’s invitation to dinner with Trudeau was part of a planned effort by “rogue political elements in India” to “make the Canadian government appear sympathetic to Sikh extremism.” This would explain how Atwal was able to get into the country in the first place; recall NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s inability to get an Indian visa on account of his work with the Sikh community. It would not, however, explain Surrey Liberal MP Randeep Sarai’s decision to invite Atwal in the first place.)


But Trudeau finally got his meeting with Modi on Friday, and there were no obvious hard feelings about the prime minister tripping through an ethnonationalist minefield. They hugged it out and stressed that their countries are good friends and that Canada and India can’t wait to hang out again in the future and maybe get a couple projects on the go, you know, eventually, when everything calms down and they have the time to get around to it. Trudeau’s homecoming on Saturday will no doubt be bittersweet: his nightmarish Indian adventure will finally be over, but he also won’t be able to justify wearing his extensive kurta collection outside the house anymore, which is clearly something the man really, really likes to do.

In light of just how poorly this whole thing went, it might be a good time to consider whether Trudeau has flown too close to the sun on the wings of his own celebrity star-power. The prime minister has a bad habit of being glib and aloof, which is charming the first time you see it on the campaign hustings against Stephen “I Do Math Homework For Fun” Harper or when it’s played on the news alongside Donald Trump’s latest musings about America’s ideal guns-to-child-murder ratio. But even a good schtick gets old if that’s all you’ve got, and not everything plays to the same audience. This would be good to keep in mind when you take your show on the road to a place like India, a single state trying to balance the collective demands of one-sixth of the world’s population. They could give a shit about Justin Trudeau™—and that was before his string of international incidents.

Given that his bad week in India comes not long after “peoplekind” made the rounds in the world media, it may not be a bad idea for Trudeau to take time out from the globetrotting glamour thing and, I don’t know, do some governing. That’s the thing about style—the novelty wears out very quickly and you are forced to reckon with substance. And I’m not sure how much self-awareness is part of the Trudeau brand.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.