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1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
It is the night of Friday, Jan. 28, at the Wall Centre in downtown Vancouver where Christy Clark is throwing a pep rally to mark the final week of the B.C. Liberal Party's membership sign-up ground war.

There are a few celebs: condo mogul Bob Rennie and ex-TV news anchor Pamela Martin, who give introductory speeches, and mega-developer Peter Wall, who beams from the wings.

But the person in the room arguably most pivotal to Clark's chances of becoming premier is a good-looking 32-year-old Sikh man with a shaved head and a smart business suit who roams the room with a glass of wine, giving hugs and handshakes.

Amar Bajwa is a key organizer for Clark in British Columbia's South Asian community -- a close-knit group that has long punched politically above its demographic weight.

The recruitment of South Asian members could be a decisive factor in both the B.C. Liberal and the NDP leadership campaigns.

Conventional wisdom is that B.C. Liberal candidates will sign up 30,000 to 35,000 new members and 40 to 50 per cent of them are expected to be South Asian.

"The South Asian vote is critical because our community has always been involved in politics," said Bajwa. "We are from the world's largest democracy. And we carried that foundation over to here in Canada."

Liberal leadership candidate Mike de Jong says he has signed up 10,000 new members. Party insiders say most of de Jong's support is South Asian and that Clark -- helped by federal Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal's machine in Surrey -- has also signed up close to 10,000 South Asians. Kevin Falcon is expected to sign up 5,000 to 8,000 South Asians.

Bajwa, a Victoria entrepreneur who was previously a federal Liberal political operative, was approached by other B.C. Liberal candidates for help, but opted for Clark.

Bajwa was one of "Basi's boys," the young Indo-Canadian organizers, led by Dave Basi, who recruited South Asians to the federal Liberal party in order to control constituency associations, largely on behalf of the Paul Martin wing of the party.

(Basi pleaded guilty last year, along with Bob Virk, to breach of trust and accepting benefits in exchange for leaking confidential information about the BC Rail bidding process in 2003.)

Bajwa has recruited in South Asian-rich Surrey, where it's estimated that 10,000 new members have been brought into the B.C. Liberal fold.

Bajwa has also visited communities in the Okanagan, the central Interior and Vancouver Island, signing up South Asians for Clark.

Asked how many South Asians he's recruited, Bajwa smiled and said: "Oh, I don't know. Just my family, I guess."

Dr. Gulzar Cheema, a former B.C. Liberal MLA who supports de Jong, said the clout of new South Asian memberships is not restricted to Metro Vancouver.

"There are South Asians in many towns in B.C. and people have contacted them from all camps," said Cheema.

"Our team has been all over the place and so has our competition."

Cheema said the South Asian factor can be overestimated. "They will have their share of influence, but it's a fair share."

Cheema said South Asians will be decisive in only 22 of the province's 85 constituencies, including ridings in Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond, Abbotsford, Prince George, Prince Rupert and the Okanagan.


Robin Dhir, a federal Conservative organizer, co-chairs Falcon's South Asian campaign. Asked why South Asians are more excited on a per-capita basis than other British Columbians about becoming party members, Dhir points to India.

"We [South Asians] definitely over-index the general public," said Dhir. "But you have to remember that back in India, it's hard to get close to the action in politics.

"Here ministers will often drive to their own event. So there is this notion that you can actually affect change and so hence the greater involvement of the community."

Falcon, according to all camps, has strong support in the South Asian business community, especially in Surrey, which he represents as an MLA and where he was active in municipal politics.

In a nod to the South Asian factor in the leadership race, Falcon recently issued a media statement critical of the Quebec National Assembly for turning away members of the World Sikh Organization because they were wearing ceremonial kirpans.

The consensus is that George Abbott has some South Asian support, but lags far behind his three main rivals. His frustration over his rivals' success in signing up thousands of new members in Surrey emerged in an interview with The Vancouver Sun's Jonathan Fowlie earlier this week.

Abbott said the number of B.C. Liberals in Surrey-Newton, has grown from about 200 members at the beginning of the leadership race, to more than 5,000.

"That's a fairly staggering growth in a short period of time. The number [of Liberal members] now well exceeds the number of people who voted for the B.C. Liberal Party in the last provincial election," said Abbott.

"Our own sign-ups are relatively limited in that riding. I presume other camps are signing up large numbers of people."

De Jong supporter Cheema said the South Asian factor will be less if the party adopts the proposed regionally weighted system, which will give every riding equal clout in the Feb. 26 vote.

"If we keep one-member one-vote, South Asians will play a significant role. If it's cancelled, their clout will be a little bit down but on the balance they will be very active."

Tex Enemark, a veteran federal Liberal who supports Abbott, said South Asians will wield influence in ridings across the province.

"Many B.C. Liberal ridings have small memberships. And so the sign-up of a motivated group can have serious leverage on the system."

A case in point is the riding of Penticton, where there were only 380 B.C. Liberal members when the race began.

Penticton orchardist Devinder Garcha said he's signed up about 80 new members for Clark.

He says he thinks more than 200 South Asians in the riding have signed new memberships for Clark.

"The South Asian community will play a major role because we like politics. We are aggressive."

It has not been uncommon for South Asians to hold memberships in both the NDP and the B.C. Liberal Party.

Cheema said he has seen far less "duplication" of memberships during the current two campaigns than in the past.

"We have less chance of duplication because the two campaigns are going on at the same time. If we didn't have the NDP campaign also going on, I think it would be a big mess."

Cheema said that the NDP traditionally has more South Asian support than the B.C. Liberals because of the community's working-class heritage.


On the NDP side, Adrian Dix is far behind Mike Farnworth in the polls, but remains a frontrunner, at least partly because of his strong long-standing ties to the South Asian community in Metro Vancouver.

"The Liberal and NDP races will be decided more or less by the South Asian community. They will prove to be the deciding factor," said Kushpaul (Paul) Gill, a Dix supporter who showed up at NDP headquarters on the final day of the party's membership sign-up.

Gill, a close ally of former premier Glen Clark, said he didn't bring any memberships but was just observing the scene.

Gill, who publishes an Indo-Canadian newspaper, is one of many South Asians who supports the NDP provincially and the Liberals federally. He estimated the Dix camp has signed up between 5,000 and 8,000 new members. Asked if the majority of them are South Asian, Gill responded: "Probably. Maybe."

Dix supporters, many of them South Asian, showed up at the NDP's provincial office on Jan. 17, the cut-off day for new memberships, with stacks of new membership forms and money in separate bags.

Some of the Dix supporters returned the next day to attach money to the bundles of forms.

Farnworth supporters and leadership candidate Harry Lali cried foul, saying that under party rules, the money should have been attached to the forms before they were brought in.

Dix campaign manager Gerry Scott countered that there has always been a provision for canvassers to bring in forms during the final hours of the sign-up period and come back the next day to "batch" the money with the forms.

"The idea that this is untoward is just fiction," said Scott.

"There were no irregularities and the verification of the forms is underway and that process is much stronger than in 2000."


What happened during the 2000 NDP leadership race between Ujjal Dosanjh and Corky Evans casts a shadow over the current sign-up of South Asians in both campaigns.

A phone survey by the NDP discovered that 1,300 members had been signed up "without their consent.'' The NDP also acknowledged that another 108 members belonged to the B.C. Liberals.

Memories of that campaign colour how Evans, now retired from politics, views the current row over large sign-ups in the NDP.

"The mass sign-up of any sector of society is a problem for political parties because there is the capacity -- and in my experience there was the fact -- of people joining a political party because someone in their family or their job or their boss or their church tells them to.

"Or, even worse, signs them up. Or, even worse, pays their entry fee. And then that party ends up with a bunch of members who really have no interest in the ongoing life of that party."

Evans recalled riding in a taxi cab in Prince George after an all-candidates debate in the 2000 leadership fight. When the South Asian cab driver heard that Evans was an NDP candidate, he proudly declared that he also was a New Democrat.

"The driver told me that his boss had just signed up all 30 of the company's cab drivers.

"And the driver was happy because he could say he was a New Democrat. But it had not been his idea and he had not paid the money."

Evans said new members to parties often join not because of ideology but because of some personal or cultural connection to a candidate.

There is nothing improper with that, said Evans. "But when it happens in sort of an industrial fashion and thousands of memberships are brought in by canvassers in a hurry, then I think you often wind up changing the democratic process, for the worse."

The NDP membership is expected to more than double from 13,000 when Carole James was ousted as leader to more than 25,000. About 7,000 of the new members are lapsed members contacted by the party headquarters and asked to rejoin the party.

Cheema said tight networks in the South Asian community facilitate membership recruitment.

"It's a lot easier because most live in extended families. And employers ask employees to sign up.

"It's not about explaining the particular political philosophies or any ideology. It's a social network that is causing all these sign-ups."

Cheema said Sikh temples are far less involved in either leadership race than they were in previous leadership battles.

"It's a sign of maturity in the community. But people are still pressured to sign up for candidates without knowing what they stand for."

Recruitment campaigns in various subcultures go back to the earliest days of Canadian politics, said Royce Koop, a political scientist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

The Sikh temple in recent years has become the equivalent of the pro-Conservative protestant Orange Hall in Ontario or the pro-Liberal Catholic Church.

Earlier immigrant groups, including the Irish and Italians, often voted as blocs for various political candidates and parties in Canada and the U.S.

"It's nothing new to bring in outsiders to a party who then let their memberships lapse afterwards," Koop said.

"South Asians are now a new source for new members and joining parties provides these new communities a way to actually compete and win in what are real old parties."

Read more: http://www.{censored}/life/South+Asian+votes+leadership+races/4229746/story.html#ixzz1D8YUjzKc
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