It is an exciting time to become engaged in Canadian politics. But this article does not aims to explore who Canadian Sikhs should vote for on May 2, but rather how can Sikhs prepare to vote.
Sikhs and Panjabis throughout Canada held Vaisakhi celebrations in April which attracted representatives from all political parties, including the PM and the Opposition leaders. About 150,000 people participated in the Vaisakhi festivities in Surrey, BC, the largest gathering in the Sikh Diaspora. Among Panjabi cultural festivities, Vaisakhi is a three-prong reminder of the Sikh raison-d’être: Work to establish an egalitarian society; challenge domination of any kind; and, capture political power for the common mission. Can any of these elements be realised next Monday?
If the answer is yes, than Sikhs and Panjabis must see developing ―principle-centered political thinking as part of their civic duty. This means joining in the difficult task of discerning what the unique contribution of government is to the promotion of justice and the public good—a task which does not come easily or automatically to us. In preparation, we can draw on the rich legacy of Sikh political wisdom. Sikh historical precedents in South Asia instruct that establishing just rule is critical to a healthy society: “Guaranteeing economic and political sovereignties shall establish victory in life.” This is a direction to today’s voters to ensure fair taxation and civil rights for all, while having zero tolerance for race or gender bias. Yes, Sikhs are one minority among others. Yet their goal should be to work for the common good of the nation as a whole, not solely their interests.
Preparing to vote means coming to grips with the role of political parties and the content of their policies. Is there a single Sikh view of party politics? To date, there is no one, conclusive answer to this question. While it is true that Sikh political convictions can negatively rule certain parties out, they can offer no positive guidance on a single party to support. In light of this then, the decision falls to individual Sikh voters, free to decide what mix of principles, policies or personalities they find compelling when marking their ballot. While this does not result in a cohesive bloc of Sikh and Panjabi voters, perhaps we can rejoice instead that each individual has the opportunity to contribute to the greater whole through their vote, to seize their right to suffrage as an expression of strength and civic pride. “O my beloved, do not make me subservient to anyone,” rings the infinite wisdom of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptural canon. An informed vote is a decisive rejection of subservience, in favor of willful participation in the future’s course.
Thirty-five million individual voters speaking separately cannot send one clear message to government. Citizens need parties to clarify a set of core convictions around which they can effectively mobilise and apply to areas of policy. Political parties work then to create coherent mandates which direct government’s actions. In attempting to lend the Sikh voice to the process, it would be helpful if Sikhs could solidify the relevant “Sikh political principles” which they want to see embodied in a party. Instead our discussions occupy the realm of complex, contestable judgments.
But this does not mean the Sikh debate on voting is pointless nor does it indicate that the absence of unanimity leaves Sikhs with nothing substantive to contribute to the democratic process. No! It is precisely because the issues are complex that we need to engage in rigorous reasoning, by which we test each other’s logic and built a stronger core of understanding through discussion. The tensions or frustrations of debate are not failures; they should instead be seen as vital components of education and growth. The Guru Granth Sahib warns that, “When the constituency is ignorant, the leaders will be corrupt.” The work of educating and engaging one another in the voting process should be seen as some of our most important work as Sikh Canadians.
Part of the education process is studying the parties as well as the people who have asked to take part in leading Canada. Like them or not, political parties are now indispensable to representative democracy, and Sikhs and Panjabis should be committed to them. Admittedly, the view that parties should be organizations of political conviction, and not just electoral machines or mouthpieces of special interests, is often mocked as ―idealistic.‖ But those who have chosen to be active in parties should face down that mockery and seek to elevate the character, behaviour and rhetoric of their parties wherever possible.
Others announce, piously or in exasperation that they are “voting for the person not the party!” But this is just simply not the case. When you vote, you are necessarily electing a party. Obviously the character, record, and commitments of individuals are relevant to how you vote. But these individuals come with parties attached, and it is the overarching policy commitments of these parties which should weigh far more heavily in determining how one votes. Those commitments are summed up in a party’s manifesto. While a rough and incomplete guide to what the party actually does in office, the manifesto is an opportunity when the party’s core convictions – or lack of them – are publicly aired, and it should be taken seriously.
Sikhs must, therefore, examine all of the party programs on offer when voting this Monday. Parties make commitments across a range of public policies, and Sikh voters need to assess a party’s overall balance of policies and not simply focus on a single issue– be it allocation of aid, ethics, India, liberty, marriage, environment, human rights, or myriad others. Instead the challenge to all will be taking a wider view of the common good when marking the ballot. In voting for a candidate based on a single stance, you vote for everything else that candidate and their party stands for whether you like it or not. Single-issue voting is simply not responsible.
Canadian government cannot address faiths and ideologies directly – it can’t make you honour nature as the One Force’s gift – but it can act extensively to protect victims from others’ irresponsible behaviour and to incentivise responsible action. Vaisakhi can be very purposeful this year if Begampura – “the city without sorrow” – is envisioned, where religious, political and economic rights are interlinked, in Canada and beyond.