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In Jagmeet Singh, a unifying figure with divisive potential

Jagmeet Singh's bid to lead the federal NDP offers bold new possibilities for the party. But the Ontario MPP faces serious opposition, which he believes may include agents working on behalf of the government of India.

However, the greatest hurdle may be overcoming resistance from Quebec secularists uncomfortable with the prospect of a turban-and-kirpan-wearing Sikh leading the New Democrats.

In that respect, Mr. Singh represents both a challenge and an opportunity: Will native-born and immigrant, French and English, people of faith and secularists unite in support of Mr. Singh's fusion candidacy? Or does he divide more than he unites?

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Opinion: Jagmeet Singh's challenge: substance over style

Sources within the party speaking on background so that they may be more candid point to the formidable coalition uniting behind the Singh campaign. He is believed to have the support of senior figures within the labour movement, and people who were close to former leader Jack Layton. Campaign officials described his fundraising results as "phenomenal," saying that in the six weeks after Mr. Singh entered the campaign last May, he received more in donations than all of his opponents combined in the first quarter.

A lawyer and mixed martial arts expert who wears custom-made suits, Mr. Singh offers a reinvigorating option to a depressed party that had hoped to win the 2015 election but instead came third.

The Bramalea-Gore-Malton MPP could galvanize younger and immigrant voters in the crucial suburban electoral battlegrounds of Greater Toronto, where the NDP has historically been weak. He would also be the first member of a visible minority to lead a national Canadian party.

"To see a child of immigrants in a position of decision maker, it's such a Canadian story," Mr. Singh said in an interview. "… And I'm hoping it inspires a whole new generation of leaders."

At a leadership debate in Saskatoon Tuesday evening, Mr. Singh stressed the importance of choosing a leader who can win votes. "We can talk about ideas all day long," he said, but "if we don't actually get into power and implement them, we're actually letting Canadians down." This contrasted with Churchill-Keewatinook Aski MP Niki Ashton, who maintained that "principles lead to power" and advocated putting "people ahead of profits."

And unlike Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus, who focused on the importance of grass-roots organizing, Mr. Singh maintained that "under my leadership the NDP can win not only in urban centres, but in surrounding suburbs as well," because "I can connect with new Canadians in ways that others on this stage simply cannot."

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But he faces opposition beyond that posed by Mr. Angus, Ms. Ashton and Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques MP Guy Caron.

Mr. Singh said people within the Indo-Canadian community have told him that figures with links to the Indian high commission in Ottawa had urged them not to support him or contribute to his campaign.

"This is what they told me," he said, stressing that he was simply passing along what others were telling him.

Mr. Singh has spoken out forcefully against what he believes is the persecution of Sikhs in India by the government in Delhi, and in 2013 was refused a visa to travel there. At the time, Indian consul-general Akhilesh Mishra, without referring specifically to Mr. Singh, said that people "who seek to undermine" Indian democratic institutions are "only misusing the pretext of human rights to pursue their insidious agenda of disturbing the social fabric of India."

The Indian high commission did not respond on Tuesday to several requests for comment.

Mr. Singh is also meeting resistance in Quebec, which has 16 NDP MPs – a rump compared with the 59 elected in 2011 under Mr. Layton's leadership, but still more than in any other province.

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On Tuesday, Le Devoir quoted former NDP MP Pierre Dionne Labelle, who said Mr. Singh would harm the party's fortunes in Quebec. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's defence of the right of Muslim women to wear the niqab in public helped defeat many New Democrats, he said, predicting Mr. Singh's turban and kirpan would also prove divisive. "To have a leader who would wear ostentatious signs, we are not ready," he told Le Devoir.

"I am someone who certainly has visible signs of my spirituality," Mr. Singh said in response. "But I believe strongly in the right of a woman to choose, I believe strongly in the right of same-sex people to marry."

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, in contrast, does not visibly manifest his Catholic faith, but has opposed abortion and same-sex marriage, Mr. Singh observed.

"In that way, I am informed by social democratic, New Democratic values that align with the people of Quebec" more closely than the values of Mr. Scheer, he said.

Mr. Singh is a candidate who could galvanize new Canadians into supporting the NDP, even as he risks alienating more established constituencies. NDP supporters must decide this fall whether they are willing to take that risk.

Video: NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh takes aim at Trudeau (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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