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Will Canadian politician Jagmeet Singh live up to the hype?

In four Federal by-elections to the House of Commons since Singh assumed charge of the NDP, support for the party has collapsed.

world Updated: Dec 24, 2017 21:27 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times, Toronto
Jagmeet Singh,New Democratic Party,Angus Reid Institute
Jagmeet Singh celebrates this October after being elected to lead the NDP.(Image courtesy:New Democratic Party )

In mid-December, the public policy research group Angus Reid Institute released a survey on the approval ratings of the leadership of Federal parties in Canada. Jagmeet Singh, elected leader of the New Democratic Party or NDP just two-and-a-half months earlier, made his debut on the list, scoring an impressive 39%, exceeding the figure for his Conservative counterpart but trailing the country’s Prime Minister and Liberal Party chief Justin Trudeau.

While that may be a positive driver heading into 2018, there are also signs for concern. As the Institute’s executive director Shachi Kurl said, “While these approval numbers should give him some reason for comfort, he’s also going to be judged, inevitably, through the more traditional metrics of political success.”

In four Federal by-elections to the House of Commons since Singh assumed charge of the NDP, support for the party has collapsed. “There’s no question the NDP were the losers; they decreased their vote share in every single election. Which shows really there has been no upsurge in support for him,” Christopher Cochrane, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto Scarborough, argued. “The Liberals won the 2015 (Federal) elections with soft left-of-centre voters choosing the Trudeau Liberals over the NDP. Can Jagmeet Singh woo back those voters? That’s what he needs to do in order to survive and grow the party,” Kurl said.

That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s still very early in his tenure as Singh himself commented to the media in Ottawa this month: “This is something that’s not going to happen overnight.”

The first challenge for Singh heading into 2018 could be to find a way into the House of Commons rather than holding press availabilities outside, as he has been wont to do.

He is not an MP, and was a member of the Ontario legislature when elected to lead the NDP.

He faces the problem that his party holds no seats in the area he dominates, Brampton, a suburb of Toronto.

But he may require a resignation from a plausible riding elsewhere to make his presence felt in Parliament

Cochrane said, “He’s taken the Justin Trudeau strategy of staying away from Parliament and going out and, as he put it, connecting with voters. The problem for him for a strategic point of view is he doesn’t have the family name Trudeau has, he doesn’t have the same level of media interest, he doesn’t get any of that free publicity.

“So, if he’s not in Parliament, if he’s not on Question Period, if he’s not constantly on the Hill grilling his opponents, if he doesn’t get the images of standing up and interrogating Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons, he’s simply not going to get nearly enough attention to generate a national profile.”

Kurl agreed, “He’s not easily accessible to the daily opportunity of national media exposure.”

That apart, he will need to rebuild a party that was “battered, bruised and chastened”, as Kurl put it, after the 2015 elections, after heady success in 2011, emerging then as the principal Opposition in the House of Commons.

“The party will have to figure out a way to present itself to progressive Canadians as a reasonable alternative to the Liberals,” Cochrane said.

That’s a task in itself since Trudeau leads the most left-of-centre Liberal government in a generation, occupying the space traditionally taken by the NDP.

As Kurl pointed out: “He still faces a very very strong brand in Justin Trudeau.”

While his election as the first visible minority to lead a Federal party in Canada was celebrated in Canada and across the world, just being an observant turban-wearing Sikh could prove a drawback in a province like Quebec, which propelled the NDP in 2011.

As Cochrane said, “It will be incredibly difficult for Jagmeet Singh to maintain the NDP’s gains in Quebec and for that party, Quebec seems to be the path of power.”

Quebec has what is charitably described as a “secularist commitment” or a dislike for overt display of religiosity, a major strike against Singh. “He’s up against it doubly because of the way he looks and the religion he adheres to,” Cochrane felt.

While Singh faced headwinds early as he refused to condemn the display of photographs of the mastermind of the Air India bombing in gurdwaras in Canada as a “martyr”, that issue may not impact him in the overall context, as Kurl pointed out. “I don’t know how much of an issue this is for Mr Singh’s younger followers or so Canadians writ large.”

Other matters will dominate. Kurl said, “The task of building a party back up from a morale standpoint, from a financial standpoint and from an operational standpoint will be the challenge and task set for Mr Singh next year.”

Taking that task on is very much on Singh’s agenda certainly, as he told the media in Ottawa this month: “I know it’s going to take a lot of hard work, and I’m not in any way discouraged; I’m just encouraged to work even harder, and I’ll continue to do that.”

First Published: Dec 24, 2017 17:11 IST