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November 17, 1999


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Dosanjh Promises An Open Government

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A P Kamath

Ujjal Dosanjh "Nobody in my family has been left behind," Ujjal Dosanjh said in an accent that is a medley of Punjabi and Canadian English, with lingering British influence.

"Everyone should get a chance to succeed through opportunity, and no one, I repeat no one, is left behind."

Sounds like a campaign speech?

Well it is. And Dosanjh, who could become the first Asian premier in Canada in a few months, does not let the voters forget where he has come from.

Dosanjh, who worked as a janitor, night watchman and lumbermill laborer as he studied political science and law at night, is not only the attorney-general of Canada but also one of its most charismatic politicians.

After months of speculations, he ended his silence and announced last week that he will be a candidate to the position of premier at the February convention of the New Democratic Party.

"There is no question that if I run and do win the leadership that it may be a historic fact, but that is less my concern," Dosanjh had said earlier.

"My concern is to make sure that I work for and represent all British Columbians. That we govern for all British Columbians."

First elected to the provincial assembly in 1991 after several rejections, Dosanjh said he would bring "a rich and varied background" to the premier's office.

Dosanjh said political activism is his family's heritage.

His father, a member of the Congress party in India, founded a school in Dosanjh Kallan, a tiny Punjabi village in which Dosanjh was born and raised. His father spent many hours a week organizing freedom fighters.

The British jailed his grandfather who was fighting for independence and one of his uncles was hanged during the anti-British agitation, he recalled.

A liberal Sikh, he was severely beaten by a Sikh extremist with a crowbar in 1985 in Vancouver when he spoke out against violence associated with Khalistan. He needed 85 stitches, but he never backed down despite constant threats to his life and family.

Dosanjh carried on his family's active political tradition when he arrived in Canada in 1968, and soon began working on behalf of farm workers and taught English to new immigrants.

Fifty-one-year-old Dosanjh, who migrated first to England when he was 17, eventually became editor of a Punjabi weekly there.

He said he was drawn to Canada because he felt the North American country offered more challenges to an immigrant than England.

At a recent political gathering, he said since he was a self-made man, he understood the concerns of the common men and women clearly. He promised a far more open and fiscally responsible government than has been since in the province so far.

The left-leaning New Democratic Party that Dosanjh hopes to lead is demoralized, following the resignation of its leader Glen Clark in August due to a financial scandal. It is also riven by infighting and hurt by a lack of focus.

But Dosanjh is looking beyond his party. He wants to take a middle ground. While promising that he will never to abandon the middle and working class, he also indicated that he believed in the politics of consensus.

"It is time to stop the constant swing in British Columbia's political pendulum -- where one government comes in and decides that organized labor is the enemy and another comes in and decides big business is the enemy," said Dosanjh while announcing his candidacy.

The NDP is holding its national convention in February, and already two leaders -- former finance minister Joy MacPhail and Agriculture Minister Corky Evans -- have announced that they will challenge Dosanjh. McPhail tried to derail Dosanjh's candidacy last month by joining hands with cabinet minister Moe Sihota.

Like Dosanjh, Sihota is a clean-shaven Sikh, who has endeared himself to hard-liner Sikhs who have never forgiven Dosanjh for continually criticizing the Khalistani movement. McPhail and Sihota made a public issue of Dosanjh recruiting thousands of Sikhs into the NDP.

Their complaint that Dosanjh was trying to "hijack" the party became a non-issue in a few days as polls shows that Dosanjh's popularity, based mostly on his passion for education reforms and tough stance against crime, remained untouched.

Dosanjh tried to defuse the crisis. He said he would not continue mass enrollment efforts but rejected a demand that recent entrants should not have a vote at the convention. He resented the idea that credibility and credentials of a group are suspect because they belong to an ethnic minority.

He also tried to make peace with Sihota.

"Moe is my colleague," Dosanjh said. "I've always respected him as a colleague. I have absolutely no quarrel with him," he said.

But Sihota, who was bitterly criticized by liberal Sikhs, including Baldev Singh Gill, president of the Guru Nanak gurdwara in Surrey, for damaging Dosanjh's image has not tried to bridge the gap, at least not in public.

There is speculation that he might join the contest to wean away Indian Canadian votes at the convention. There are about 100,000 Indian Canadians, mostly Sikhs, in Vancouver and neighboring cities like Surrey.

But Dosanjh remains confident of his abilities to woo mainstream votes. He also says he will get solid backing from other minorities including Chinese, Hispanics and Koreans.

Dosanjh does not see himself as the stopgap premier and has said explicitly that he wants to lead NDP into victory in the next election.

About 49 per cent of British Columbian voters in a recent poll have said they will not vote for the NDP. But about 47 per cent -- up by about 10 per cent in the last three months -- have announced they will consider voting for the NDP if there is a new and effective leader.

Dosanjh says he will be that leader, and he will work towards convincing his non-supporters that their interests are best served by a more democratic and open NDP.

Now that he is a candidate, he expects more criticism. Some of his foes outside the NDP have demanded that he should resign as attorney general and run his campaign independently. They feel he will exploit his position to make political gains for himself.

He is not in a mood to oblige them.

He says many of his initiatives and tough policies against crime were born long before he had any idea that he will contest for the party's leadership. And if he continues that tradition, he adds, it is because that is what expected of him as the province's highest law-enforcement official.

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