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Justin Trudeau has quite a lot in common with Rahul Gandhi. Both were born into power, and were also expected to lead historic political powers. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Justin Trudeau has quite a lot in common with Rahul Gandhi. Both were born into power, and were also expected to lead historic political powers. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Similarities between Trudeau and India’s Gandhi are uncanny Add to ...

Is Justin Trudeau the Rahul Gandhi of Canada?

Forgive the indulgence in barstool comparative politics. But as Canada’s election grinds on, I find myself coming back to the question I’ve had lodged in my mind since I returned from covering India’s election last spring.

Just how much do Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Gandhi have in common? The short answer is: Quite a lot. For Liberal supporters who did not follow India’s general election last year – the largest democratic exercise in human history – that might be a tad unsettling: Mr. Gandhi ended up leading his party to the most resounding defeat in its history.

Both men, of course, were born into power, scions of powerful political dynasties. Mr. Trudeau, obviously, is the son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Mr. Gandhi happens to be the son of Rajiv Gandhi of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, a former prime minister of India, and Sonia Gandhi, the current president of the Indian National Congress party.

Consequently, both men have long been expected to lead, and were also expected to lead historic political parties long intertwined with their nations. In Canada, the Liberals were the traditional governing party, the party of multiculturalism (introduced by Pierre Trudeau) and peacekeeping (Lester B. Pearson). In India, even more importantly, Congress was the party that fought for India’s independence and defended the country’s secular foundations. Congress is the revered party of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi, men who cast much longer, more imposing shadows upon their successors than anything Canada’s Liberal Party can muster.

Both parties, of course, ruled for so long they became decadent and veered off course. In this, Canada’s sponsorship scandal looks almost saintly in comparison to corruption under the Congress party – where scandals cost the exchequer tens of billions of dollars.

On a more shallow note, both men are boyishly handsome despite being in their early-to-mid 40s, and both matured in public view. But below the surface, both are tragic, ambivalent figures. Tragedy has struck both families in very public ways. Mr. Trudeau lost a brother in an avalanche in B.C., and his revered father’s state funeral was widely followed. In India, Rahul’s father Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber who bent down to touch his feet – and then detonated a bomb under her clothes. There exists a wellspring of public sympathy for the two present-day politicians, even if that may count for little at the ballot box.

To their admirers, there is an aura of destiny to the two men. To their critics, there is a whiff of silver-spoon arrogance, a sense of entitled self-regard that occasionally manifests itself in dilettantish behaviour or unserious comments.

Both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Gandhi also found themselves matched up against much older men, with much longer track records. Mr. Trudeau is up against Stephen Harper, a prime minister of nearly a decade, as well as Thomas Mulcair, a stern, former provincial cabinet minister and lawyer.

Mr. Gandhi, even less fortunately, wound up squaring off against Narendra Modi, who ran on a stable 12-year record as the chief minister of Gujarat, a comparatively prosperous Indian state of 62 million people. Mr. Modi is even a sort of composite character of Mr. Trudeau’s rivals: Like Mr. Harper, he was renowned as a capable administrator and friend of business, with little time for progressive social initiatives and a less-than-pragmatic tendency to prioritize ideology; and like Mr. Mulcair, Mr. Modi is a taciturn, bearded, bulky man with little time for smiles.

We know how Mr. Gandhi’s battle ended. And like Mr. Trudeau, who sagged early in the polls, Mr. Gandhi’s campaign seemed over before it began. Mr. Gandhi lost so badly to Mr. Modi that the results have rewritten Indian politics. The Congress party went from 206 seats to just 44 in the 543-seat lower house, and was effectively hollowed out of the Indian polity. The Hindu nationalist right-wing is now gleefully ascendent.

Only recently, it seems, have the two men’s political fortunes diverged. Unlike Mr. Modi, who was a singular alternative to the fiscal depravity under Congress, both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulcair are vying to be the alternative to Mr. Harper. And whereas Mr. Modi strode confidently to victory with soaring and incendiary speeches, Mr. Mulcair appeared to get too comfortable in the lead and deflated rhetorically, just as Mr. Trudeau began to breathe fire in debates – a zeal that never quite struck Mr. Gandhi.

Oddly enough, Mr. Modi – who was chief minister during Gujarat’s deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2002 – and Mr. Harper, who has seized on the niqab and promised a “barbaric cultural practices” tipline if re-elected, have both benefited from shameful anti-Muslim sentiment within the larger electorate. This issue impacts Mr. Mulcair – because of the NDP’s seats in Quebec, where opposition to the niqab is strong – more than Mr. Trudeau. But running against a rival accused of Islamophobia is yet one more similarity between Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Trudeau, both of whom have familial links back to a more hopeful, idealistic period in their countries’ political histories.

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