On 23 May 1914, Komagata Maru, a crowded cargo ship carrying 376 immigrants, mostly from Punjab, arrived in Vancouver’s Burrad Inlet on the west coast of Canada, challenging its “whites only” citizenship policy. The ship was denied docking by the authorities. Following a twomonth stalemate during which period 20 immigrants jumped ship and swam ashore, Komagata Maru was escorted out of the harbour by the Canadian military on 23 July 1914, and forced to sail back to India with its remaining passengers. But the Punjabis never gave up their fight to immigrate to Canada, then a British Dominion.
When Canada votes on 21 October to elect its 43rd Parliament, Sardar Jagmeet Singh, a second generation immigrant and leader of the New Democratic Party, could well emerge as its first non-white Prime Minister. Support for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party and Opposition leader Andrew Sheer’s Conservative Party is on the decline and that for the NDP is surging. Indications are the election will throw up a hung Parliament with no party touching the 170-mark to form a government of its own with a simple majority. The NDP has greater chances of coalescing with other parties than the conservatives, who has ruled out any coalition, to form the next government.
There are six parties in the race, but only the leaders of the ruling Liberal Party, Opposition Conservative Party and the Left leaning NDP are in the reckoning for the premiership. According to the latest opinion polls, the Liberals and the Conservatives are in a neck-andneck race, followed by the NDP. Bloc Quebecois, a separatist party, is fourth and the Greens Party is the fifth. The People’s Party, known for its racism, has not been taken seriously by the Canadian electorate. Sheer has ruled out the Conservative party seeking the support of any other party to form a coalition government. An absolute majority seems beyond its reach at the moment. In the 2015 election, the Liberals won 184 out of the 338 seats, the Conservatives 99, Bloc Quebecois 10 and the Greens one seat.
The People’s Party was not in existence then. Except for the People’s Party and the Conservatives, the other parties have no qualms about aligning with the NDP. In the only national English language television debate in which leaders of all the six parties participated, Jagmeet Singh excelled. Even though Canada had federal minority governments in the past in which the single largest party governed getting issue-based support from other parties, the idea of a coalition government is a novelty. Born in Scarborough in 1979 to parents who had migrated to Canada a few years earlier, Jagmeet Singh as a boy helped his mother prepare community meals at a local gurdwara during weekends. At school he was laughed at for wearing a patka, a piece of cloth to cover emerging top knot, and kirpan.
By the time he joined the University of Western Ontario, his father had lost his medical licence to practice psychiatry and to file for bankruptcy. Jagmeet not only had to support him by doing odd jobs, but also brought up his younger brother. The NDP was built on social democratic principles that believed in equality and the importance of a strong welfare state. Jack Layton led the party to the status of official opposition in 2011. Tom Mulcair who succeeded Layton pulled the NDP towards the centre even as the Liberals were moving to the left. In the 2015 election, the NDP under the leadership of Muclair lost much of the ground it gained in 2011 to the Liberals and brought down its tally in Parliament from 103 to 44.
The Liberal Party under the leadership of Trudeau won 184 seats and formed the government in 2015. He too has frittered away the fortunes of the Liberal Party in the last five years by his acts of commission and omission. The NDP was struggling to keep its rank and file together when Jagmeet Singh, known for his calm demeanour, inherited its leadership in 2017. The party’s finances were in a shambles. Shortly before his taking over, a woman shouted “Muslim brotherhood,” mistaking his religious identity. As the date of the election for the 43rd Parliament was announced last month, nine of the sitting NDP MPs declined to contest.
Under these circumstances, it may sound audacious when Jagmeet Singh says “I am running to become the Prime Minister of Canada.” With his huge following, particularly among young people, on the social media, he has brought a breath of fresh air and vigour in the NDP. He is hoping for a coalition government which he could lead. He is ready to do whatever it takes to keep the Conservatives from power. In 2008, the Liberals and the NDP sparked a backlash by trying to defeat the minority Conservative government of Stephen Harper with the support of Bloc Quebecois. A coalition of the Liberal Party, NDP and the Bloc Quebecois will be a formidable force.
“In any scenario that happens, whatever the people choose, I am going to make sure the Canadians get the best deal. I am going to make sure we fight hard for the things that are our priorities. I am going to make sure we deliver those things,” Jagmeet Singh said at an election rally in Quebec and listed six of his “urgent priorities.” They are: Universal pharmacare and national dental care, investments in creating affordable housing, lower cellphone bills, waiving interest on student loans, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and an end to subsidies for the oil patch and a super wealth tax for those with wealth of more than $20 million.
Leaders of the six parties in the fray are concentrating in Quebec, the province with 78 seats in Parliament, somewhat like Uttar Pradesh in India, to round up their campaign. While the Bloc Quebecois has no federal ambition, it wants to enhance its presence in Parliament to press for greater autonomy for the French speaking province. The Conservative party has never been popular with the francophones. Sheer is seeking Quebeckers’ votes to prevent Trudeau forming a coalition government with the NDP so that he can form a minority Conservative government. Canadians traditionally prefer single party government. Ever since the confederation came into being, there was only one coalition government, during the First World War, but 13 minority governments.
Sheer has promised to cut foreign aid by 25 per cent so that billions of dollars saved could be put in the pockets of every Canadian citizen. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Canada currently spends just 0.28 per cent of gross national income on foreign aid. Among the five parties competing to form the next government in Ottawa is the People’s Party of Canada, led by Maxime Bernier. Elected to Parliament thrice on Conservative Party ticket, he unsuccessfully contested the party’s leadership last year. Andrew Sheer pipped him at the post.
Declaring the CP “morally and intellectually bankrupt,” Bernier launched the People’s Party. He is fighting for more freedom and less government. After a year of hard work and signing up 40,000 members, Bernier has managed to field candidates for almost all the 338 seats. A fortnight before polling, one of his candidates in Nova Scotia dropped out saying, he could not remain in the party which had become very dangerous and a kind of vehicle for racism. The same week Bernier stood by two of his candidates who shared an image on social media showing Jagmeet Singh with a bomb in his turban.
Denouncing mass immigration and multiculturalism, Bernier has promised to reduce the number of immigrants admitted to Canada. He has also vowed to repeal the Canadian Multiculturalism Act and promote Canadian culture and values. His own re-election in Beauce is in doubt, leave alone nurturing any ambition to become the Prime Minister. Canadians are not enamoured of Burnier’s brand of politics.
(The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director of The Statesman Print Journalism School)