That was quick — the media's brief love affair with Jagmeet Singh

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NDP leader Jagmeet Singh was handed orange roses by a supporter while visiting Toronto on Oct. 13. Photo: @thejagmeetsingh/Twitter

A new political leader usually enjoys a honeymoon with the media, and new NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is no exception. In the immediate aftermath of Singh’s surprise first-ballot victory on October 1, journalists and broadcasters seemed genuinely impressed by his notional charisma. Pundits dubbed him a game-changer, among other encomiums.

The Oxford English dictionary tells us the word "charisma" is derived from a Latinized form of the Greek word kharis, meaning grace, beauty or kindness. It was the sociologist Max Weber who gave the word its more recent, political sense: the gift of leadership.

Whatever that ephemeral concept means, it seems Singh has charisma.

He rides a bike in a bespoke suit (with no socks), wears turbans in fashion colours, has a compelling life story and, most important, has the ineffable ability to connect. People, it seems, simply feel good in his presence.

Singh’s are the qualities that most appeal to those who wield power in the media. When Justin Trudeau was chosen Liberal leader, mainstream political journalists reported that their bosses had a near insatiable appetite for stories on him. The public, the bosses believed, was intensely curious about the attractive new, young leader, with the famous name and photogenic family. Media managers were convinced Trudeau’s name and image could help them sell eyeballs to advertisers -- and that is what they are all about.

For a New York minute, Singh got similar treatment.

Trudeau had grown a bit stale. As a prime minister in office, exercising power not charm, Trudeau had accumulated some inevitable battle scars. He was starting to look a bit old-hat, a bit like any other politician, sometimes keeping his word and sometimes, well, not. Jagmeet Singh was a bright and shiny new object of curiosity.

But it didn’t last.

Out of left field, a question on the Air India bombing

First, came a tense interview with CBC’s Terry Milewski. He grilled the new leader on his views of a Sikh nationalist and possible terrorist, whom police in India killed 25 years ago, a man by the name of Talwinder Singh Parmar. The Commission of Inquiry into the Air India bombing of 1985, which took the lives of 329 people, most of them Canadian, fingered Parmar as the mastermind behind that bloody event.

To a certain segment of the Canadian Sikh community, however, Parmar is not an un-convicted murderer; he is a martyr. Milewski mentioned to Singh that some of Parmar’s Canadian Sikh community admirers hold up posters bearing his image at political rallies, and invited the new NDP leader, who was a young child at the time of the Air India bombing, to vigorously condemn that sort of adulation.

Milewski didn’t just throw that question out, without context, of course. If you watch the interview, you will note that he prefaced the question on Parmar with quite a different issue, the 1984 riots in India, in which thousands of Sikhs were murdered. Jagmeet Singh has condemned those killings as genocide.

In framing his question the way he did, Milewski committed an error he should have learned to avoid in Interviewing 101: the dreaded double-barrelled question. Interviewers should know that if they want their interlocutors to address a particular issue they should not present them with two possibilities. Inevitably, those being interviewed will steer toward the issue with which they are most comfortable.

And so, predictably, Singh chose to address part one of Milewski’s query, about the 1984 massacres -- or, at least, he tried to. The new NDP leader made the point that, in his view, there is no endemic hostility between Sikhs and Hindus, and he justified his use of the term genocide as a way of laying blame for the massacre on the Indian government, not on the Indian people as a whole.

Milewski had scant interest in the 1984 events, and even less in Singh’s view of them. Despite having put that issue on the table, Milewski grew quickly impatient with Singh’s nuanced response, and pushed him to deal with what was in fact his sole preoccupation: the adulation of Parmar. The CBC interviewer repeatedly interrupted Singh, to the point where the NDP leader had to politely insist that Milewski allow him to finish his sentence.

When Singh did turn to the Air India bombing, he vigorously condemned the "heinous massacre" of innocent Canadians, and said he hoped the perpetrators would be found and punished. But he also insisted that he did not know who was responsible. He did not even bother to mention Parmar.

Milewski was not satisfied and doggedly pursued the matter, but Singh would not budge. It became a something of a tense standoff; but then, as is the way of all flesh on television, they ran out of time.  

Afterward, those who commented on this now famous exchange were divided in their views.

Some thought Milewski’s line of questioning was, in essence, racist.

At least one of Justin Trudeau’s Sikh candidates in the last election, current defence minister Harjit Sajjan, received support from militant, and perhaps even extremist, elements in the Canadian Sikh community. Many who commented pointed out that no journalist has ever asked the Liberal leader about Talwinder Singh Parmar.

Others had the view that although Milewski may have been maladroit and overly aggressive, he did have a valid point.

Singh has been associated, in the words of one respected professor of journalism, with the "Sikh nationalist movement" and, thus, it is legitimate to hold him to account on the Parmar-as-a-martyr issue.

It was, on the whole, a bad moment for the new NDP leader, and signalled that the media’s fascination with him as an exciting fresh face had quickly worn off. The only comfort for Singh and the NDP is that the 1985 attack on an Air India plane, and all the controversy surrounding it, is, to most Canadians, an arcane and obscure subject.

Self-determination for Quebec?

That is not true of the other awkward issue that has cropped up for Singh since he won the leadership: the question of Quebec’s right to self-determination.

Shortly after his victory, while on a by-election campaign stop in Quebec, a reporter pushed Singh on the NDP’s Sherbrooke Declaration, which would recognize, with caveats, the legitimacy of a 50 per cent plus one "yes" vote in a referendum on sovereignty.

Previous NDP leaders have been careful in their responses to this question. Jack Layton used to emphasize that his priority was to achieve winning conditions for Quebec within Canada. Separation is not something we want, he would say, and we should work hard to make sure we never have to deal with a "yes" vote.

Plus, during the last parliament, the NDP presented model legislation, based on the Sherbrooke Declaration, which clearly states that an NDP government would not automatically break up the country on the strength of one "yes" vote. A vote of 50 per cent plus one for the "yes" side would only compel the federal government to enter into discussions with Quebec. Such negotiations would not necessarily lead to full independence for Quebec.

The truth is that regardless of who might be holding power federally, if a "yes" vote were to happen, they would be obliged to talk to Quebec, for the good of the whole country. Canada’s economy and political order could not tolerate a prolonged period of conflict, uncertainty and instability. And the Spanish option -- i.e., removing the Quebec government from office and throwing its leaders in jail — would not be available to the Canadian federal government.

When Singh answered the question, however, he went further than previous NDP leaders. He did not lay the greatest emphasize on the primary goal of keeping Canada united. He said, rather, that he would actively and almost enthusiastically recognize Quebec’s right to self-determination. 

The NDP’s official position recognizes the legitimacy of a democratic vote, but does not assert, as do Quebec separatists, that the only road to self-determination for Quebec is through full political sovereignty. Like other federalist parties, the NDP has long argued that Canada’s flexible and adaptable federal system is a good deal for Quebec, and for francophones throughout Canada.

To many who heard Singh’s words it seemed like he was almost cheerleading for the separatist side. Editorialists and columnists in English Canada were quick to point that out. The headline in the National Post said,  "Singh wants to lead Canada, yet would support Quebec secession". The Globe and Mail’s view was similar. It commented that with Singh at the head of the NDP who needs the separatist Bloc Québecois?

It was an over-the-top reaction, to say the least, not unlike Terry Milewski’s apparent belief that because Singh is Sikh he is responsible for anything any member of the Sikh community might do or say.

Nothing, it seems, arouses English Canadian mainstream media’s ire so much as the spectre of Quebec separatism. Public figures who express even mild sympathy for the separatist cause can find themselves cast in the role of those whom the anti-Communist witch-hunters of the 1950s styled as fellow travellers and dupes.

However, unfair as it may be, there is a lesson in this sort of media coverage for NDPers. If they had expected Singh would supplant Trudeau as the new avatar of charisma in the media’s eyes, they’d better think again. Those who root for the NDP leader should now hope he and those who advise him are busy crafting rational, nuanced and well-thought-out answers to the questions that caused Jagmeet Singh grief so early in his tenure.

Affect, image and connectedness are useful, perhaps even necessary, for a successful leader. But they are not sufficient and they will only take you so far. The ability to convincingly, skilfully and subtly navigate the rocky shoals of complex policy is also crucially important.

Editor's Note: In the original version of this story we said that Talwinder Singh Parmar had been "acquitted by a Canadian court." Parmar was acquitted, in 1985, of possession of explosives, related to the Air india bombing. He was never charged with being the mastermind of the attack, although the Canadian government's Commission of Inquiry into the Air India bombing concluded that Parmar had been the architect and leader of the attack. We have deleted the words "although he had been acquitted by a Canadian court" to avoid any possible misunderstanding.

Photo: @thejagmeetsingh/Twitter

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