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The story behind the Jagmeet Singh juggernaut: Cohn

Expect ups and downs as he climbs the greasy flagpole of politics, and masters the slippery learning curve in Ottawa.

Jagmeet Singh's inspirational personal story — of overcoming prejudice, poverty and adversity — will take him only so far. To win over the country, Singh must counter preconceptions about the party he now leads, writes Martin Regg Cohn.

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Jagmeet Singh's inspirational personal story — of overcoming prejudice, poverty and adversity — will take him only so far. To win over the country, Singh must counter preconceptions about the party he now leads, writes Martin Regg Cohn.

Journalists love juggernauts — Jagmeet Singh being a classic in the genre.

Sort of.

Juggernaut is a common appellation, bordering on cliché, to describe the journey of the new NDP leader: Singh has surely come a long way, but he has many miles to go before he sleeps in 24 Sussex Drive.

A juggernaut is defined as a “massive inexorable force, campaign, movement, or object that crushes whatever is in its path.” Which sums up his unstoppable advance in the NDP leadership race.

But it doesn’t tell the full story of his odyssey.

Juggernaut is derived from the Hindi Jagannath, which translates literally as lord of the world. In Hindu mythology, worshippers sacrificed themselves under the wheels of his carriage to be crushed.

A minor caveat is that Singh, as we keep hearing, is a turban-wearing Sikh, so the Hindu term is hardly ideal. But it describes the way he deftly crushed his rivals in the leadership race.

Predicting the future of the Jagmeet juggernaut on the campaign trail in 2019 requires greater precision and astrological propitiousness. For while the new leader is a force of nature, the stars are far from aligned.

Yes, he is overcoming fears of voter prejudice against a politician of colour. A mixed martial arts fighter, he famously deployed verbal ju-jitsu to outmanoeuvre a racist provocateur huffing and puffing at one of his rallies, in a video that went viral.

Yet many believe Singh could still face headwinds in Quebec, whose lawmakers have spent years debating bans on head coverings (such as his) and face coverings. As an observant Sikh, he also wears the kirpan — which remains controversial with Quebecers — but the optimist in me believes he can charm and disarm them over the ceremonial dagger.

His inspirational personal story — of overcoming prejudice, poverty and adversity — will take him only so far. To win over the country, Singh must counter preconceptions about the party he now leads.

It’s one thing for a charismatic Liberal like Justin Trudeau to rely on “sunny ways” to become prime minister when his party can be all things to all people. It’s quite another for an NDP leader to coast on a slogan of “love and courage” when weighed down by his party’s baggage — and lack of policy heft.

Singh inherits a divided party, ideologically, geographically, environmentally. The treasury is bare and the brand is weak.

It might be said that he has nowhere to go but up. In fact, there will be ups and downs as he climbs the greasy flagpole of politics, and masters the slippery learning curve of federal leadership (he is a fast learner).

Singh lived a charmed life at Queen’s Park, making his mark in made-to-measure suits that set him apart from other MPPs for whom sartorial splendour is rarely in their daily horoscopes. Apart from a couple of missteps on sex education (Singh took a stand by stalling, hiding behind parental consultations), he soared to deputy leader status.

Along the way, Singh befriended rivals from all parties. When NDP Leader Andrea Horwath hailed his weekend triumph, all MPPs paid him tribute with a standing ovation in the legislature.

Jagmeet Singh, right, speaks to fellow leadership candidate Guy Caron as they arrive to hear the first ballot in the NDP leadership race.

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Jagmeet Singh, right, speaks to fellow leadership candidate Guy Caron as they arrive to hear the first ballot in the NDP leadership race.

For Ontario’s New Democrats, Singh’s victory is bittersweet. They invested heavily in his career, and were hoping to reap dividends in next year’s provincial election.

Diversity has long been the party’s weak point, which Singh helped shore up with fresh recruits from suburban Toronto. Now, Horwath insists, the party can still profit from his higher profile as federal leader.

Singh promised her, “I’ll be there for you” on the campaign trail, Horwath told me Monday. More than most parties, Ontario’s NDP tends to rise and fall in lockstep with its federal counterpart, so Horwath might share in the halo effect if Singh enjoys a honeymoon or bump in the polls.

But there may be some unpleasant bumps along the way, for as federal leader he will face greater scrutiny than he did in Ontario. For that reason, Singh’s absence from the House of Commons until the 2019 election — he has no plans for a seat until then — may prove to be a hidden advantage, rather than a handicap, allowing him to showcase his talents as a retail politician while delaying Parliamentary debate until he is truly ready.

The only certainty is that, for all his strengths and weaknesses, Singh cannot be underestimated. Juggernaut or ju-jitsu, he understands how to use momentum for maximum political advantage.

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