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November 6, 1999
Between The Centre And The Right
A P Kamath
The quarrel over the use of tables and chairs in the gurdwaras, and the issue of Khalistan, has gone beyond the 100,000-strong Sikh community across British Columbia and is now haunting the ruling National Democratic Party as well.
Economic Development Minister Moe Sihota, backed by fundamentalists, continues slamming fellow Sikh Ujjal Dosanjh, the attorney-general favored to become British Columbia's premier next February, when the national convention elects a new leader.
Both Sihota and Dosanjh are clean-shaven Sikhs, and though Sihota describes himself as a moderate, the more extreme elements back him in his campaign against Dosanjh.
Sihota is not in the running for the party leadership, and is backing former cabinet minister Joy McPhail. Last week he joined McPhail in criticizing Dosanjh and his supporters for the mass enlistment of Sikhs with the NDP in the past three months. The exact numbers of Sikhs enlisted is not available. Estimates range from 7,000 to 10,000. The NDP now has about 24,000 members. Though Dosanjh did not do anything wrong, Sihota said that one ethnic group should not be allowed to determine who would be the next premier of British Columbia.
McPhail, echoing Sihota's thoughts, said "mass-enlisting" should be condemned. She wants Dosanjh to keep the new members out of the party convention. Though Dosanjh said last week that it was not a good idea to have enlisted thousands of people, he has not indicated that he will ask the party to keep the new members out. Besides, he has said that his enlistment campaign was being enlarged to recruit other minorities, including Chinese, Hispanics and blacks when the controversy erupted.
The fight for the new leadership started when Premier Glen Clark resigned in August following a public announcement by Dosanjh that Clark was under criminal investigation in a casino-licensing scandal. Clark's supporters say Dosanjh could have waited for the investigation to be over, and that he went public with the announcement to enhance his own reputation as a man of candor and probity.
Dosanjh says constitutional duty expected him to share the information with the public and that he had informed NDP leaders before the announcement.
One of the first persons to criticize Dosanjh then was Sihota.
But Sihota's criticism did not create the kind of controversy that erupted last week.
Sihota and Phail demanded a meeting on November 4 to take measures that bar the supporters of Dosanjh who have joined recently from voting at the February national convention. But Dosanjh did not turn up for the meeting and the discussion did not take place.
Earlier Phail had said the party convention should not be "hijacked" by those who had joined the party recently in batches.
"Does Sihota and his supporters mean to say that we are not good enough to join the party because we paid mass dues costing each of us about $ 2?" asks Balwant Singh Gill, the moderate president of the Guru Nanak gurudwara in Surrey. Gill was recently re-elected, defeating yet another effort by fundamentalists to take over the gurduwara.
Gill was forthright in his condemnation of Sihota, adding that Sihota has created a new controversy for the Sikh community and created a setback to Dosanjh's election prospects. If everything is done by the rules, Gill wants to know why Sihota is cribbing. Gill, of course, knows the answer. He feels Sihota wants to make stronger inroads into the Sikh community and win support for his own election bid a few years from now.
Sihota's critics also point out that he too has tried mass recruitment but had been able to sign up about 2,000 Sikhs who were expected to support Sihota's candidature.
Gill and other moderates reminded Sihota that a few months ago he, along with Premier Clark and Dosanjh, had attended a fund-raiser for the NDP organized by Indian Canadians. Over 1,000 people attended, each paying $ 25.
"Our dollars and mass participation were good enough then," said one Indian Canadian activist. "But when we sign up in big numbers, it upsets Sihota."
"Let him (Sihota) run for the leadership of Dashmesh Darbar," the activist, who did not want his name revealed, said.
Dashmesh Darbar is a Surrey gurudwara under the control of fundamentalists and supported by the International Sikh Youth Federation.
Harinder Singh Johal, an outspoken critic of Dosanjh and a former president of a fundamentalist-controlled gurudwara, says the "sudden" signing up of members should be condemned. He wonders whether the new entrants have an idea what the NDP stands for.
Sihota and Johal's supporters too have wondered loud if the new recruits share the NDP's vision. But their critics slam Johal and Sihota for adopting an "elitist" approach.
"What is next? A lie-detector test," asks Prith Singh.
Sukhi Sandhu, who worked in Sihota's campaign a few years ago, turned against his former boss this week and chose to back Dosanjh.
"Sihota has turned his back on his own people," Sandhu said.
Another possible candidate, Education Minister Gordon Wilson, has not commented on the controversy.
If he joins the election fray, his wife Judy Tayebjee, a former television newscaster, is also expected to woo the Indian Canadian community.
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