Indian politicians can learn lessons from Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, who deserves a standing ovation for appointing a diverse Cabinet and challenging Islamophobia

When the young, new Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, was asked why he insisted on gender parity in his Cabinet, he simply said: “Because it is 2015.”

This one-liner says it all: because we are in 2015, we must live up to the times. But do politicians know that? As so many of them have their heads and hearts besotted with the past, they often drag others down with them, especially the young. Canada might yet teach Americans a trick or two before the latter heads out to elect their President in 2016. Yes, Canadian lessons are relevant for India too — so many of our mainstream politicians still think of caste and religion, especially during election time.

The earlier Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper, was doing its best to spread the fear of an Islamic takeover of the Canadian way of life. It also had its share of scaremongers, much like the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Yogi Adityanand and Sakshi Maharaj. Instead of pussyfooting around them, fearing an imagined majoritarian “white” reaction, Mr. Trudeau took them head on from the start. In his first post-victory interview, he recalled how a hijab-clad mother presented her baby daughter to him, hoping that she would grow up to be a free woman in Canada. He said this to a wildly cheering audience, who loved every bit of what they were hearing. All of this would have been verba non grata for the previous government.
Mr. Harper would never have expected this kind of a reception to an Islamic-friendly declaration. Like most routine quick-fix politicians, he too believed that the masses only have blood lust on their minds when they are face-to-face with people of other cultures. This line of thinking is not unknown in the U.S. or India, or even Canada — indeed in most places across the world. No country can boast of a clear conscience in terms of ethnic peace and communal harmony.

Inclusive Cabinet

But look at the corrective that Mr. Trudeau issued soon after he took over. The new Canadian Cabinet has four Sikhs, an openly gay person, a Muslim woman, native Canadians, as well as those who are physically disabled. It also boasts of specialists in critical departments. The Minister of Health is a doctor; the Minister of Transport is an astronaut; the Minister of Defence is a Sikh war veteran; the Minister of Agriculture is a farmer; the Minister of Justice was a crown prosecutor; a scientist is now a Minister of Science, and the list goes on.

It is not as if Mr. Trudeau chose one specialist here and one there, but he had them across the board in a number of ministries, all at the same time. The Prime Minister was obviously covering the issue from all angles and keen to get the first bite. After making sure of the skills he wanted in his Cabinet, he sought from among his MPs those who met this criterion, as well as represented different backgrounds, from culture to gender to sexual preferences. This is no token presence, but a genuine, competence-based representation of diversity.

We know all too well about racial tensions in the U.S., about India’s frequent lapses into majoritarian violence; Canada too has a blemished record on this score. The refusal to let Punjabi migrants dock in Vancouver, and the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, are all too well known. There was also this business of the infamous Chinese Head Tax that refuses to die out in Canadian memory. Therefore, when Mr. Trudeau challenges racist tendencies, he deserves a standing ovation. It is not something that many politicians would dare do, but when they determinedly dig in against cultural prejudice, they always win. One of the major paradoxes of politics is why leaders such as Trudeau do not come up more often.

It might have been scary for Mr. Trudeau to take on the Islamophobic types in his country. They had the power of the government behind them to maliciously spread rumours, such as that of an imminent attack on a major mall. One MP did a Sakshi Maharaj and actually said there was a need to separate “brown people” from “whities”(sic) so that the country could stay pure. These helped garnish and top-up the long-drawn and persistent attack on the hijab and niqab. It was like going back to the past, not like 2015 at all.

It is not as if Mr. Trudeau supports the practice of women veiling their faces. He did not play footsie on this issue, but publicly stated his opposition to the niqab. However, he chose not to attack this practice by using pure external force, but through discussions, dialogue and by creating a sense of comfort among Muslims. Neither did he play the “tolerance alone” card; his economic agenda was also in place and aligned to his vision of Canada.

Much like what all developmentalists are saying now, including Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton, Mr. Trudeau also remarked that without civic peace, there can be no prosperity. In the open letter he issued soon after he was elected, he made it clear that he was not going to give in to conservative, gung-ho, market-friendly worshippers. Instead he advocated state intervention in critical areas. If this meant helping the general population by taxing the very rich, so be it. As he joined this at the hip to civic peace, he nominated a native Canadian (or from the First Nation) as the Justice Minister.

Like father, like son

On many programmatic and ideological issues Mr. Trudeau resembles his late father, the charismatic Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau Senior was Prime Minister for 16 years and did not have an easy run — those were turbulent times too. Yet he came out on top because he went against lazy, popular wisdom and challenged established economic orthodoxies. He also was an unrepentant secularist and republican and gave the militant Quebec separatists a real hard time. He promised those bomb-throwers and kidnappers that he would relentlessly hunt them down, and he did. He also caricatured the soft supporters of this group by openly calling them a “bunch of eunuchs”. At the end of the day, the militants were out of work and Pierre Trudeau had won.

Pierre Trudeau was fearless and believed in preserving the idea of Canada. He was rewarded repeatedly at the polls for this stance. This is not unlike Jawaharlal Nehru’s position after the Partition: he too yielded no quarter to Hindu activists, even though Delhi was aflame with angry refugees. There are other parallels with Nehru too, especially in the way Trudeau cut his teeth in politics with the labour movement and finally put out to pasture the Catholic clergy. It is not such a bad idea if more politicians subjected ethnic rabble rousers to the test instead of yielding to them. It always pays to go against the tide in politics, just as in science and art.

Clearly, Justin Trudeau resembles his father not just in the smashing good looks department, but in ideology too. Like his father, he also is an advocate of a tolerant, caring and economically prosperous Canada. The really sunny news is that he is not alone in this. Millions of men and women of different colours, races and sexual preferences have chosen him for the top job. With all this help from friends, the “True North” promises to be every bit worthy of 2015.

(Dipankar Gupta is distinguished professor and director, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University.)


—Courtesy “The Hindu”