‘My only plan is I’ll be the fed­eral leader’

Toronto Star - - FRONT PAGE - Martin Regg Cohn’s po­lit­i­cal col­umn ap­pears Tues­day, Thurs­day and Satur­day. mcohn@thes­tar.ca, Twit­ter: @reg­gcohn

Lead­er­ship hope­ful Jag­meet Singh tells the Star’s ed­i­to­rial board that his pro­gres­sive plat­form will in­spire peo­ple to get in­volved in pol­i­tics, join the party and vote NDP,

Quite apart from his predilec­tion for the colour­ful tur­bans, it’s the way he wears his heart on his sleeve — and how he dresses in be­spoke suits — that speaks to a per­sonal style un­fa­mil­iar to New Democrats more closely iden­ti­fied with hair shirts.

To his credit, Singh has turned a whis­per­ing cam­paign into a talk­ing point that plays to his ad­van­tage.

His video en­counter this month with a rag­ing racist has gone ex­po­nen­tially vi­ral — tens of mil­lions of views and count­ing — pro­vid­ing earned me­dia that money can’t buy. His sub­dued per­for­mance — suf­fo­cat­ing his an­tag­o­nist with “love,” ef­fec­tively killing her with kind­ness — was the kind of trial by fire that few politi­cians face in the glare of the spot­light.

Re­liv­ing the video dur­ing a meet­ing with the Toronto Star’s ed­i­to­rial board, Singh said he kept his cool to calm the sup­port­ers and aides who rushed to his de­fence. He has spent a life­time re­ly­ing on his pow­ers of per­sua­sion in­stead of his mar­tial arts prow­ess.

Now 38, Singh’s youth­ful vis­age be­lies the wisps of grey hair peek­ing out from un­der his vi­o­let tur­ban dur­ing Fri­day’s visit. Clad in a dap­per grey three-piece suit ac­cented by a cream pocket hand­ker­chief (but fore­go­ing socks in his black loafers), he dis­plays the pres­ence and charisma that gave him an un­com­monly high pro­file as deputy leader of On­tario’s NDP.

He has an un­ques­tioned abil­ity to in­spire and dis­arm. The ques­tion is whether he’s will­ing to be un­like­able and un­mov­able when he needs to take an un­pop­u­lar stand.

Singh is good at telling peo­ple what they want to hear — for ex­am­ple, New Democrats won’t coun­te­nance any talk of any pipelines any­where any­time, most es­pe­cially dur­ing a lead­er­ship cam­paign, and Singh plays along. But lead­ers must also be tough enough to be unloved, say­ing what needs to be said.

I re­minded him on Fri­day of his soft touch over the prov­ince’s over­heated sex ed­u­ca­tion con­tro­versy, when he cod­dled op­po­nents in his Bramp­ton rid­ing by echo­ing the de­mands of so­cially con­ser­va­tive par­ents for per­pet­ual con­sul­ta­tions, rather than show­ing lead­er­ship as other MPPs did. Singh re­verted to his newly dis­cov­ered mes­sage dis­ci­pline by re­cast­ing him­self as a sex-ed war­rior all along.

He may be rewrit­ing his­tory here, but at least he has learned his les­son, at last, on the per­ils of pan­der­ing. No one’s per­fect, least of all politi­cians.

The point is to learn from your mis­takes, to em­brace the learn­ing curve ahead. The best way to grow your vote is to keep grow­ing as a politi­cian.

Singh still has rough edges. At our ed­i­to­rial meet­ing, he couldn’t put a fig­ure on his pro­posed tax changes.

He’s no know-it-all. As I’ve writ­ten be­fore, per­haps that’s part of his charm at a time when vot­ers are look­ing be­yond pol­ished plat­forms and pros­e­cu­to­rial de­meanours in their op­po­si­tion lead­ers.

By all ac­counts, he has that in­ef­fa­ble qual­ity of per­son­al­ity that makes up for his some­times plod­ding or un­pol­ished per­for­mances as a de­bater.

But he is no pushover and, like Justin Trudeau — to whom he is of­ten com­pared — Singh shouldn’t be un­der­es­ti­mated merely be­cause he’s no in­tel­lec­tual show-off nor smarty-pants politi­cian.

Is the party ready for a sym­pa­tico, tur­baned leader who plays ide­o­log­i­cal pol­i­tics dif­fer­ently than his tra­di­tion­ally right­eous ri­vals? A Léger poll last month showed many Que­be­cers re­luc­tant to vote for some­one who wears such a re­li­gious sym­bol in the next elec­tion.

Yet Singh is un­daunted, not­ing he has signed up more sup­port­ers in Que­bec than his ri­vals, ex­pand­ing the pool of po­ten­tial New Democrats be­yond the fickle base of Bloc Québé­cois back­ers once se­duced by the party’s na­tion­al­ist flir­ta­tions. He is ex­pand­ing the voter pie rather than walk­ing on elec­toral eggshells.

On­tario’s Lib­er­als grap­pled with a sim­i­lar de­ci­sion point in 2013, when many del­e­gates openly won­dered if the prov­ince was open to its first les­bian premier. Kath­leen Wynne went on to win the next elec­tion, sur­pass­ing ex­pec­ta­tions both elec­toral and at­ti­tu­di­nal at the time.

The tur­ban, too, could soon be a mi­nor foot­note to Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal his­tory — if New Democrats have the love and courage to choose the can­di­date who is head and shoul­ders above his ri­vals.

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