Monday, January 22, 2007

MCGUINTY A STAR IN PUNJAB

Amritsar: It was Dalton-mania in Punjab over the weekend as Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and his entourage were greeted here as something special. On his previous stops in his tour of India РDelhi, Bangalore, Mumbai (Bombay) РMcGuinty was received politely but nonchalantly. Indians in those cities have been inundated with foreign dignitaries in recent years and have become rather blas̩ about it. Gordon Brown, Britain's finance minister and putative future prime minister, and Anibal Cavaco Silva, president of Portugal, were in the same places at the same times as McGuinty and, naturally, drew more attention than a premier (which is not a term the Indians use) from some place called Ontario. But it was an entirely different story in Punjab, which is in the north end of the country and somewhat off the beaten track for foreign visitors.
Why did McGuinty go there?
Punjab is the homeland of the Sikhs, and there are some 250,000 Sikhs living in Ontario, including three MPPs who accompanied McGuinty on his tour: Harinder Takhar, minister of small business, and backbenchers Kuldip Kular and Vic Dhillon. They were all treated like visiting royalty from the time they touched down in Chandigarh (capital of Punjab) on Friday night and were given a police escort into town from the airport. The same evening, McGuinty and friends were the guests of honour at a sort-of state dinner at the Punjab Bhawan, the receiving place for visiting dignitaries. Their host was Amarinder Singh, chief minister (premier) of Punjab and the son of the last maharajah in the area. Key members of his government also attended, as well as local media, who jostled for position to get photos of McGuinty with Singh.
The next morning, McGuinty had breakfast with Bhupinder Singh Hooda, chief minister of the neighbouring state of Haryana. (Punjab and Haryana share Chandigarh as their capital.) Then it was on to deliver a speech to about 200 local businessmen before hopping a bus for a four-hour drive to Jalandhar, the birthplace of many Ontario Sikhs. His hotel was festooned with a sign: "Welcome Mr. Dalton McGuinty, hon'ble premier of Ontario-Canada." The welcome inside was rapturous as about 200 Sikhs – some of them on a visit from Ontario – crowded into a small hotel meeting room to get a glimpse of McGuinty. "I cannot begin to tell you how proud I am to be the very first Ontario premier to visit Punjab," McGuinty said in a brief speech. "We feel very much at home here."
After the speech, members of the audience were lining up to shake McGuinty's hand and be photographed with him. It was not all harmonious. Some of the hand-shakers also bent the premier's ear on issues like the problems Punjabi residents have getting visas to visit Canada and the difficulties that professionals from Punjab have finding work in their fields once they settle in Canada. But overall the atmosphere was boisterously friendly. So it was, too, yesterday morning when McGuinty visited the 400-year-old Golden Temple at Amritsar, the holiest of holy places in the Sikh faith.
What all this had to do with a trade mission to India is a good question.
The business leaders who had been accompanying McGuinty at the earlier stops all abandoned the tour before it reached Punjab. Their absence in Punjab was disdainfully noted by the half-dozen representatives of the Punjabi-Canadian media following McGuinty on his tour. They peppered him with questions about what business was actually being transacted in Punjab, and McGuinty responded with bafflegab. The answer to the question, of course, is that the Punjab leg of the tour was an opportunity for McGuinty to have positive images of himself beamed back to voters in ridings in Brampton and Mississauga, where Ontario's Sikhs are concentrated.

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