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The NDP’s Indo-Canadian problem

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I dropped by the NDP nomination meeting Sunday afternoon in Concordia, a race that caused a lot of heartburn within the party’s establishment. It offered some stark evidence of the chasm that exists between the party’s old guard and its new Indo-Canadian members. The meeting was held at a local high school, which was a pretty apt setting. Like the Grade 12 cool kids, the party establishment all hung out together while the brown guys in turbans kept to themselves. If that continues, the NDP might have a problem in a few months.

Here’s the backstory: Rookie MLA Matt Wiebe, Gary Doer’s former executive assistant who now represents Doer’s old riding, faced a surprisingly serious challenge from engineer Harkamal Saggi for the NDP nod. It was one of at least three messy nomination meetings this spring, all sparked by the thousands of new Indo-Canadian members signed up during the Ashton-Selinger leadership race.

While the federal Conservatives built an entire election strategy around the so-called ethnic vote, in Manitoba all those new NDP members are having a tough time making a dent in their party, even though they make up a hefty percentage of voters in some key NDP strongholds. There’s an undercurrent — an understandable one — that many in the Indo-Canadian community are nouveau Dippers, lacking a long-term commitment to the party’s values and who joined mostly to help Steve Ashton stack delegate-selection meetings.

It doesn’t help that Saggi committed a party faux pas, if not a heresy. Saggi challenged a sitting MLA, which is just not done, but Saggi isn’t the only one. Indo-Canadians have launched challenges in ridings like St. Norbert and The Maples. Next up is the new riding of Tyndall Park, where two Indo-Canadians are likely running.

So far, St. Norbert is the only riding where they’ve been successful. In other ridings, such as Burrows, snap nominations were called that effectively excluded anyone outside the NDP loop from entering. In The Maples earlier this month, a challenge by Jaswinder Sandhu fizzled. MLA Mohinder Saran held on to his nomination with a first ballot victory.

Both Sandhu and Saggi said they felt the nomination process was fair, that they’d been treated well by party officials and never given the nudge-nudge-wink-wink not to run.

That’s the official stuff. Unofficially, what happens is, on an individual basis, the party powers-that-be — the backbench MLAs, the army of young Leg staffers, the strategists, the riding association executive — rally around an established candidate like Matt Wiebe. That is entirely their right, to pick a side and work hard for the guy they think will best represent the party. On the other hand, those folks are veterans of general elections and nomination battles. They have the manpower to pull the vote and out-organize almost any newcomer. And they did Sunday night in Concordia. Wiebe won by a 2-to-1 margin.

Some say a good, juicy nomination battle gets the troops revved up and in shape for the real thing in October. Saggi told me Sunday he would support Wiebe this fall if Wiebe won the nomination.

But, looking around the hallways at Kildonan East Collegiate, it felt like us-and-them, much like it did nearly two years ago at some of the rowdy leadership delegate selection meetings where the mostly-white party volunteers where trying to manage the masses of new Indo-Canadian members. That’s got to change in the next few months or the NDP will lose support in a community fast becoming the city’s next powerbrokers. Already, one prominent Indo-Canadian has ditched his NDP membership to run for the Tories. (Granted, he’s been a thorn in the party’s side for years, but still.)

The divide also points to a certain sense of entitlement that grips party that’s been in power so long. Grassroots organizing wanes. Parties start to take votes, and whole neighbourhoods, for granted. When your party has just signed up thousands of new politically motivated members who will take signs and spread the word, the last thing you want to do is leave the impression, however subtle and unintended, that they aren’t welcome. Especially when you’re facing the toughest election in more than a decade.

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