On October 21, 2019, Canada, the world's sixth 'best democracy' according to a global democracy index, will vote to elect its Prime Minister.
This time, it is not just Canadians but Indians too who are looking forward to the outcome of the nation’s 43rd parliamentary elections.
The reason? Prime Ministerial candidate Jagmeet Singh, who heads the second-largest opposition party --- the New Democratic Party (NDP) -- in Canada.
But who exactly is Jagmeet Singh and why is his candidacy important for the future of Indo-Canadian ties?
Jagmeet Singh aka Jimmy Dhaliwal, born in 1979 to immigrant Indian parents in Scarborough, Canada, is a lawyer and politician serving as leader of the NDP since 2017 and as a Member of Parliament since 2019.
An active opposition leader, he has caught the attention of Canadians, many of whom see him as a fresh alternative due to his distinct policies.
But for Indians, he might just be the more controversial candidate to root for, despite his Punjabi roots. Here's why.
Jagmeet’s alleged support for Sikh separatist groups
The NDP leader has more than once openly voiced his support for Sikh separatists in Canada, earning him the tag of being ‘pro-Khalistan’.
In 2013, Singh was denied a visa to India for criticising New Delhi's human rights record, in turn becoming the first western legislator ever to be denied entry into the country.
With this being the background, his emergence as a political force could pose a threat to Indo-Canadian ties.
Even with Trudeau in charge, India’s perception has been that Canada is doing little to stop those supporting the Khalistan cause. Current Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan was in fact branded a ‘Khalistani sympathiser’ by Punjab CM Amarinder Singh.
Trudeau’s delegation during his unofficial 2018 India visit included Sajjan which had led to a great deal of heartburn.
“It is well known that India is not well disposed to the separatists among the Canadian Sikhs. This is irrespective of who is in power in Canada and New Delhi. Officially, the Trudeau government did not show bias, but at the domestic level - and India is well aware of this - pro-Khalistan elements have continued to be hostile to India.
“Efforts to mend the ties on this issue failed and Trudeau’s visit to India was an unmitigated disaster,” says Mahendra Ved, President of Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) and a columnist with Lokmarg.
But there is another important reason for India to be wary of Jagmeet - Kashmir.
Jagmeet’s stand against abrogation of Article 370
On August 5, 2019, India scrapped Article 370 which had accorded special status to Kashmir and reduced it to a Union territory, sparking a series of debates in India and the world over.
Canada has not released any official statement on the issue. However, Jagmeet at one of his recent rallies made his stand clear.
“The Indian government shut down telephones, cellphone communication, and blocked media. Anywhere in the world, if the cellphones are being blocked, the telephones are being shut down, and the media is not allowed to go there, I can assure you, there are human rights violations going on,” Singh said to his audience.
“I want the people of Kashmir to know that I stand with you, I stand against the injustices happening, and I denounce what India is doing to the people of Kashmir,” he added.
Sikh #Canadian Democrat @theJagmeetSingh says he stands with the people of #Kashmir & is against the #HumanRightsViolations happening there. I second that & entire #Sikh community globally #StandWithKashmir @ImranKhanPTI @tonyashai @sherryontopp @hrw @UN @SikhProf pic.twitter.com/pR8TCoJRrQ— Paiy Hansra (@fabpaiy) September 30, 2019
Mohit Verma, a research scholar and graduate from the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Waterloo, Ontario and a specialist in Indo-Canadian relations, says that such a declaration could mean two things.
According to him, while Jagmeet’s ‘humanitarian’ stand resonates with that of his party and has drawn him considerable praise from the Kashmiri Canadian diaspora in cities like Toronto, Vancouver and others, it could prove a major stumbling block were he to come to power.
“Should Jagmeet Singh become Prime Minister, Indo-Canadian ties will not improve much on a governmental level. I can’t see any free-trade deals or ministerial meetings taking place between Canada and India, until the Indian government is satisfied with the Canadian Prime Minister’s stance on these separatist movements.
“If the Indian government will not back down from their positions on Khalistan and Kashmir as established in previous bilateral meetings, it will be up to Jagmeet, if he is Prime Minister, to decide if he will go back on his support to Kashmiri-Canadians and the victims of the 1984 Sikh genocide, as he refers to them,” he added.
Surveys, however, suggest that Jagmeet's party is unlikely to win the polls. So, his Prime Ministerial ambitions may have to be put on hold. But if neither Trudeau's Liberal Party nor the Conservative Party wins a majority of their own, the NDP's support may hold the key. So Jagmeet could still emerge as the kingmaker if not the king.