December 9, 2000


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S Gopikrishna

Losing through winning: Desis in Canadian politics

Can members of a community win an election and still lose collectively as a group?

Let us look at the desi performance in the Canadian federal elections, whose distinctly desi flavour and excitement seem to have been overlooked in the din of the noisy American election.

Canada, in its federal election on November 27 elected six different MPs of desi descent, including a full fledged cabinet minister, a success level that remains (and will remain) unmatched in any Western country, the US included. These winners, in addition to a busload of our countrymen who ran and lost, have demonstrated the admirable qualities of grit, determination and perseverance, which seem to be clouded by a less than admirable slavish mentality evident during British-India days.

While community members may have become high-profile, it is doubtful if the community will benefit, thanks to the tendency of some members to turn a Nelson's eye to comments inimical to the community, in addition to introducing election tactics which would do Laloo proud.

A brief primer on Canadian politics will help explain the following comments on the tactics and the antics of the desis who ran.

Canadian politics is built around four national parties and one regional party and is closer to the Indian model than the American system.

The Liberal Party, which recently won its third consecutive mandate, is a centrist party that tries to be everything to everybody -- pro-immigrant, pro-labour, pro-agriculture and pro-middle class resulting in an often contradictory official platform possessing more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese.

Lead by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, the party boasts two desi MPs -- Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal and Toronto Area MP Gurbax Singh Malhi.

More conservative than progressive, the Progressive Conservatives reflect to a remarkable degree, the history of the Congress party in India -- a hoary past, bleak present and the bleakest of futures.

The main Opposition party, the Canadian Alliance, is a right of centre party led by the photogenic Stockwell Day. Day is 50 years old, possesses the agility and energy of a 25 year old, not to mention the analytical skills and maturity of a 15 year old. Despite its being perceived as a party of, for and by rednecks, the party has 4 MPs of desi descent -- Keith Martin, Deepak Obhrai, Rahim Jaffer and Gurmant Singh Grewal.

Idealism and pro-immigrant attitudes have not contained the decay of the New Democratic Party, a left of centre party. This party is in power at the provincial level in British Columbia, where Premier Ujjal Singh Dosanjh maintains a tenacious grip on power amidst bickering with fellow Sikh politicians Harry Lali and Moe Sihota.

The BQ (Bloc Quebecois), is a regional, Quebec-based party with a single minded devotion to separating French speaking Quebec from the rest of English speaking Canada. This party has no support among immigrants, Indian or otherwise.

With a platoon of desis running (at least two dozens), it was but inevitable that Shrilal Shukla's Hindi classic Raag Darbari came to life starting off with the episode of Malhi vs Malhi.

In the Bramlea-Gore-Springdale-Malton riding on Toronto's outskirts, Canadian Alliance candidate Gurdish Singh Mangat decided he had to wrest the seat from Liberal incumbent Gurbax Singh Malhi at any cost. Somebody on Mangat's side came up with the bright idea of fielding an independent candidate with the last name of Malhi. The ensuing confusion between the names, appearing consecutively on the ballot, would cause the incumbent Malhi to lose votes.

And in a close race, a few votes can make the difference between winning and Florida-style chaos.

In catapulted a mysterious lady by name Gurinder Malhi a few minutes before the nominations closed, with nomination papers "signed" by people who subsequently swore legal affidavits attesting to no knowledge of who she was.

A week before the election, when asked the reason for her running, the contestant had a "Am I running?" look on her face. When the questioner persisted, she mumbled something about the "present government not keeping its promises."

The cat was out of the bag when she asked for her name to be withdrawn after the ballots were printed. The incumbent Malhi cried foul and held press conferences denouncing the importing of "India style tricks."

In the next election, can we expect to see Canadian candidates in close races hire experts in "authentic Indian tricks" to save their seats?

Positively shameful is the behaviour of Canadian Alliance candidates who remain unheard when racist remarks are made by their party members.

The Alliance is notorious for its less than tolerant attitudes towards immigrants, refugees and minorities. Minority officeholders have been heckled by Alliance members and asked to "go back to where you come from."

Its far from charming record notwithstanding, a few desis have made a beeline for the party in the hope of winning a parliament seat.

Not that their ignoring insults aimed at immigrants, (and adding a few of their own) have helped. Despite playing the quintessential coconut (white inside and brown outside), MP Keith Martin (who is one-fourth desi) got into trouble.

Working himself into a frenzy when Chinese refugee claimants arrived off the Western coast in a rickety boat in mid-1999, a frenzied Martin demanded their ouster… "Throw them out if they can't prove within three days that they have genuine cases," he hollered with a tone and attitude that would make Pat Buchanan seem like the compassionate Buddha in comparison.

When the election was announced this year, a few influential souls decided (perhaps in view of his "flawed" pedigree) that he didn't reflect "true Canadian values..." They came up with an elaborate ploy to have him booted at the nomination meeting. Our poor Daaktar Sahib turned MP sweated more to pacify those disgruntled souls than he would have in any operation theatre. By the end, he looked as pathetic as those poor Chinese refugee claimants whose ouster he had been demanding so vociferously. He barely managed to get the nomination, verifying the old adage about "what goes around also comes around."

We then have Rahim Jaffer, a Uganda-born Gujarati/Kutchi Ismaili who faces something of an identity crisis. Despite his working with the Liberal party, he sought an Alliance ticket in the 1997 election when he discovered that the Alliance was set to sweep the province of Alberta.

"I am disillusioned with the Liberals," he told everybody willing to listen before plunging into the Alliance with chameleon-like skill. A well managed campaign helped him win the nomination for the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona while eliciting howls from the party veterans who had been defeated.

One prominent veteran went on to say that Jaffer was a "coloured boy who ought to be checked for exotic tropical diseases" which our exultant politician pretended not to hear.

As to why the sensitive soul didn't become "disillusioned " with the Alliance despite such racist claptrap remains unanswered.

If this isn't bad enough, Jaffer applies himself seriously to playing the quintessential Desi Murgee Vilaayati Chaal."

Despite being as fluent in French as the late Giani Zail Singh was in English, Jaffer insists on conversing in French (Canada's other official language) largely to prove himself to be a "true Canadian" leaving everybody confused about his speech's contents and his identity.

Unquestioned loyalty to the Alliance party line isn't always helpful, as Deepak Obhrai, the MP for Calgary East, would have learnt.

Incumbents normally expect an easy return at the riding nomination meeting and tend not to work extra hard for the nomination. The "majorities deserve majority representation" school of thought in the Alliance has resorted to the trick of dumping minority MPs through packing the nomination meeting with large numbers of members at the last moment through church drives and then out vote the incumbent.

Obhrai got wind of the ousting tactic in the last minute and put his redoubtable vocal chords (arguably Canada's loudest) to good use. He rounded up all supporters, topped it off with a large desi delegation, marched into the nomination meeting and prevailed by a whisker.

The desi tenacity and quick thinking skills make you proud until you notice their selective use.

An Alliance candidate by the name of Betty Granger decided there were too many foreigners seeking admission into Canadian universities leaving REAL Canadians out in the cold. This undereducated educator, who sits on the city of Winnipeg's education board, complained about an "Asian invasion in the universities" and "too many Asians buying real estate and escalating the price," in the same breath.

(You see, in Vancouver, 'Victorian mansions' owned by McRae or Schneider become 'monster homes' when sold to Ai Guo Wang or Ranvir Singh.)

Obhrai's vocal chords were nowhere in evidence after Granger's foot-in-the-mouth pronouncements, just as Jaffer, Martin and a whole platoon of other desi candidates running for the Alliance made themselves unheard, unseen and unavailable for comment.

Granger resigned under pressure all right, but where are our "representatives" when needed the most?

They probably believe that salvation lies in becoming gora in spirit, if not in colour.

Desi participation is welcome as long as one doesn't slumber when ethno-cultural identity is attacked right, left and centre.

Despite winning in the individual capacity, the community can still lose in terms of effective representation. As our friends in the Alliance have proved, one doesn't have to lose to become a loser, there are candidates who lose through winning.

S Gopikrishna writes on Indians and India from Toronto. Feedback, which is more than welcome, may be sent to

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