OTTAWA - On Prime Minister Stephen Harper's upcoming trip to India, both the host and the guest will be handling a little baggage.
The six-day visit which begins on Sunday is a mix of photo opportunities, trade and business talk, and of course the requisite nod to Canadian domestic politics — namely the more than one-million-strong Indian-Canadian community.
It will kick off with a stop at one of the most familiar and gorgeous sites in India — the Taj Mahal in Agra. But beyond the scenic snapshots, there are sensitive issues that both Harper and his counterpart Manmohan Singh bring with them to the table.
The visit happens at a tumultuous time in Indian politics. Singh's government recently lost a coalition partner and is in a minority position. He reshuffled his cabinet only last week, meaning some of the ministers that will likely meet with Harper's own entourage are new to their jobs — including the foreign minister, the petroleum minister and the agriculture minister.
"On the one hand, they're politically weak right now, but on the other they are looking to signal that they aren't a lame duck government, that there's still life left in them and they can push forward economically important agreements and deals," said Carleton University professor Vivek Dehejia, pointing to talks between Canada and India for trade and foreign investment pacts.
But Dehejia cautions that Canada might not exactly be on the radar screen of Indian leaders.
"India very much has the attitude...that they've sort of arrived, that they're emerging as a major international player, so the kind of people they want to be engaging with are the Americans, and the Russians and the Brits, so I'm not sure that Canada is well understood at the highest political level or that it's given much thought," said Dehejia, also a contributor to the New York Times.
The Indian prime minister has introduced economic reforms that would be welcomed by Canada — namely, the lifting of limitations on foreign investment in the "multi-brand" retail sphere.
"The Walmarts and Carrefours and Ikeas are going to start developing the supply chain, in the same way that McCain's was in there when McDonald's created the supply chain for french fries, and McCain's became the biggest supplier of french fries in India," said Rana Sarkar, president and CEO of the Canada-India Business Council.
On Harper's side, there is the outstanding issue of a nuclear agreement with India signed two years ago that has never gotten out of the starting blocks. Canada has wanted to impose some end-user conditions on uranium exports, which India has balked at as patronizing.
Canada would also like to increase trade with India, whose economy is expected to grow by 5.8 per cent in 2012-13. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver travelled to India in October to push Canadian exports not just from the oilsands, but also of liquefied natural gas from the east coast. India, which has the world's second biggest population, is hungry for stable energy sources.
Harper will take part in a Canada-India business forum and he is expected to announce a beefing up of the trade office in Bangalore — the thriving, entrepreneurial "silicon valley" of India.
Sarkar says it's an opportunity for a concerted agenda to emerge on Canada-India relations.
"Our business elites and our governments haven't been as granularly engaged in India as some of the other countries for as long, so this is the opportunity to thicken things up and also to promote brand Canada within India, which is extremely important to...getting on their business radar," said Sarkar.
"Their world is typically more focused on Europe and the United States and other parts of Asia."
No trip to India would be complete without a stop in the Punjab region that is the birthplace for so many Canadians.
Here again there are minefields that need to be carefully avoided. Many in the Indo-Canadian Sikh community would like to hear Harper press the Indian government to properly investigate the murders of more than 3,000 people in a series of anti-Sikh riots in November 1984. Last year, more bodies were discovered in connection with that dark period.
The violence was sparked after former prime minister Indira Ghandi was murdered by two of her Sikh bodyguards, who in turn were retaliating for a bloody military operation that targeted insurgents who were holed up in the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
"We want to raise the issue of human rights and the lack of any justice or closure for the Sikh community," said Japinder Singh, director of Sikhs for Justice.
"Sikhs are a significant portion of the Canadian mosaic, and one of our issues of concern is that various political parties in Canada visit India but don't raise the issue of human rights and the challenges the community faces."
The issue is a sensitive one with the Indian leadership, which sometimes casts a wary eye towards elements in the Canadian Sikh community.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, and his predecessor Jack Layton, have both marked the invasion of the Golden Temple. The India high commission reacted angrily, writing a letter to Mulcair referring to those holed up in the temple as "terrorists."
Following his trip to India from November 4-9, Harper will make a stop in the Philippines, and finally mark Remembrance Day in Hong Kong.