Why is Canada accusing India and Pakistan of election interference?

The South Asian rivals have been waging parallel influence operations in Canada, according to Ottawa’s top spy agency.

A sign outside the Canadian Security Intelligence Service headquarters in Ottawa [File: Chris Wattie/Reuters]

Canada’s main spy agency has accused India and Pakistan of trying to meddle in the country’s last two general elections.

The reports made public last week were presented as part of a federal commission of inquiry investigating interference by foreign nations, including China and Russia, in the 2019 and 2021 national votes.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) said India’s government tried to interfere in the 2019 and 2021 elections using “clandestine activities” targeting certain electoral districts in the country and select politicians.

The CSIS in a separate document accused Islamabad of covertly trying to influence politics at the federal level before the 2019 elections to advance Pakistani interests.

It is rare for governments to level allegations against other sovereign nations – and Canada traditionally has viewed both India and Pakistan as partners. But the accusations were levelled amid mounting tensions between Canada and India and a broader worry within Canada that foreign actors have been trying to shape its electoral outcomes.

Here are the details of what the CSIS alleged – and the implications.

What are the allegations against India?

According to the CSIS documents, reviewed by Al Jazeera, “proxy agents” of the Indian government tried to influence the 2019 and 2021 elections with the aim to “align Canada’s positions with India’s interests on key issues, particularly with respect to how the Gol [government of India] perceives Canada-based supporters of an independent Sikh homeland that they refer to as Khalistan”.

This, the CSIS report alleged, was done “through the clandestine provision of illicit financial support to various Canadian politicians as a means of attempting to secure the election of pro-Gol candidates or gaining influence over candidates who take office”.

“In some instances, the candidates may never know their campaigns received illicit funds,” the report said.

According to the documents, India’s influence campaign focused on a “small number of electoral districts” that are home to Indo-Canadian communities that New Delhi views as supportive of the Khalistani separatist cause.

The CSIS alleged that India deliberately relies on “Canadian and Canada-based proxies and the contacts in their networks” for its operations because this “obfuscates any explicit link” between New Delhi and its influence efforts in Canada.

“Proxies liaise and work with Indian intelligence officials in India and Canada, taking both explicit and implicit direction from them,” the report said.

(FILES) India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shakes hand with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of the G20 Leaders' Summit in New Delhi on September 9, 2023. Canada on September 18 accused India's government of involvement in the killing of a Canadian Sikh leader near Vancouver last June, prompting tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions after New Delhi rejected the charge as "absurd." (Photo by Evan Vucci / POOL / AFP) / NO USE AFTER OCTOBER 19, 2023 06:55:28 GMT NO USE AFTER OCTOBER 19, 2023 06:55
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, accused Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in June of involvement in the killing of a Canadian Sikh leader near Vancouver [File: Evan Vucci/Pool/AFP]

How has India responded?

When news reports first emerged in February suggesting that Canada was investigating Indian electoral interference, New Delhi was quick to respond, describing the allegations as “baseless”.

“It is not Government of India’s policy to interfere in democratic processes of other countries,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said.

“In fact, quite on the reverse, it is Canada which has been interfering in our internal affairs. We have been raising this issue regularly with them. We continue to call on Canada to take effective measures to address our core concerns.”

India-Canada relations took a hit last year after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of being involved in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist leader who was shot dead in June near Vancouver.

The latest allegations are likely to only complicate ties further, especially as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gears up for a national vote that begins this month and could bring him back to power for a third time, said Reeta Tremblay, political scientist and emeritus professor at the University of Victoria.

Tremblay referred to comments by India’s foreign minister, S Jaishankar, that while strained ties were not in the interest of either Ottawa or New Delhi, “territorial integrity and the diasporic Khalistan separatism are core issues for India, and that it is Canada which is interfering in India’s domestic politics rather the other way around”.

Based on the 2021 census, Canada is home to 1.4 million people of Indian ethic or cultural origin.

What are the allegations against Pakistan?

The CSIS said Pakistan’s foreign interference in Canada was “primarily to promote political, security and economic stability in Pakistan and to counter India’s growing global influence”.

According to the assessment, Islamabad was a “limited foreign interference actor” in the 2019 and 2021 elections.

“Government of Pakistan foreign interference activities abroad are influenced by its turbulent domestic political, economic and security situation, as well as its longstanding tensions with neighbouring India,” the report said.

The summary said previous interference activities by Pakistan included efforts to “clandestinely affect the selection of and increase support for politicians and candidates who are perceived to be more pro-Pakistan or anti-India”.

Pakistan has not yet responded to the allegations made by the CSIS.

Unlike with India, Tremblay said she does not expect the allegations to affect Canada-Pakistan ties much. “Although Canada and Pakistan enjoy a good but limited economic relationship, Canada has not hesitated to weigh in on the recent elections in Pakistan, condemning incidents of electoral violence and attacks on democracy,” she said.

At the same time, the allegations by the CSIS could undermine Pakistan’s ability to portray India as guilty of overseas influence operations without drawing attention to Islamabad too and could reinforce New Delhi’s allegations of Pakistani support for the Khalistani cause, Tremblay said.

China’s interference in Canadian elections

A big part of the ongoing inquiry is to deduce the role and extent of Beijing’s alleged role in influencing recent Canadian elections.

Canada’s foreign intelligence agency concluded that China interfered in the last two elections, according to the official probe.

Trudeau’s Liberal Party won the elections held in 2019 and 2021.

“We know that the PRC [Peoples’ Republic of China] clandestinely and deceptively interfered in both the 2019 and 2021 elections,” the CSIS said.

“In both cases, these FI [foreign interference] activities were pragmatic in nature and focused primarily on supporting those viewed to be either ‘pro-PRC’ or ‘neutral’ on issues of interest to the PRC government.”

China denies it interferes in Canadian politics.

The CSIS said outside state actors were able to conduct foreign interference due to “few legal and political consequences”.

“Foreign interference is therefore low-risk and high-reward,” the CSIS assessment said.

Trudeau, who has been accused of not doing enough to counter foreign interference in Canada’s elections, is expected to testify as part of the inquiry on Wednesday.

“We have known for many, many years that many different countries take an interest in engaging in Canadian institutions and sometimes influencing, sometimes interfering in the work of Canadian institutions,” he told reporters on Friday.

“I can assure people that we will continue to do everything necessary to prevent interference from whatever country it comes from.”

The China-Canada relationship has been tense for the past several years, especially after 2018 when Canadian authorities detained Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou on a United States arrest warrant.

What does all of this mean for Canada?

Tremblay said the reports suggested that Canada needs to do a better job of coordinating key agencies, including the CSIS, the Royal Mounted Police, the bureaucracy and election authorities.

Also, she said, it needs to “better manage its own diaspora and understand the vulnerability of this community with its family ties back home”. By 2041, half of the Canadian population is expected to consist of immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Source: Al Jazeera