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Practical Ideals


24 August 2002


TORONTO - Akaash Maharaj’s voice – soft, genteel, yet paradoxically forceful – cut through the din of a Queen Street coffee shop one recent afternoon. He is in full mainstream preppy regalia, his khaki shirt open at the neck, his gold specs glinting professorially, looking as if he is about to embark on a Power Point presentation.

In sum, this Toronto-born is the very image of the bookish son of immigrants who was absorbing Machiavelli while all the other kids were still on Tolkien.

And, most strikingly, he is a skilled aphorist who, during the course of a relatively brief meeting, made the following remarks, and made them effortlessly.

• “Each of us is a living memorial to everyone who came before us.”

• “It takes courage to be an idealist”

• “I’d rather lose on my own merits, than win on someone else’s coattails.”

This last statement relates to the 32-year-old Maharaj’s current preoccupation – viz., emerging as the next president of the federal Liberal Party, a position that comes up in February and which he is busy trying to snag with a goodly helping of brains and earnestness (this latter trait somehow more sweet than cloying). He wears it all very well.

Others agree. David Peterson, he former Ontario premier, is a Maharaj cheerleader, who describes him as “a practical idealist – a thinker, a doer and a leader.”

Allan Rock and Paul Martin might be rivals in the rapidly evolving leadership race, but they certainly agree on one thing: They like this guy too.

Rock has been quoted as saying that “Akaash is the source of much of the intellectual horsepower in the Liberal Party of Canada.” Martin, meanwhile, says he’s worked with some of the best policy wonks in the world and “few of them – if any of them – have the same grasp of issues as Akaash.”

Maharaj was raised in the not-yet-trendy neighbourhood of Parkdale (his grandparents, who brought him up, worked in a spice factory), and managed to sew together some scholarships to get himself to Oxford University, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics. He was the first ever non-Brit to serve as president of the…student union. Now he seems set to enter the smoky backrooms of federal politics.

Compare him to the outgoing president, Stephen LeDrew the bowtie-wearing charm machine and consummate insider, and it’s like comparing Dr. Phil to Dr. Evil.

Or compare him to the other declared candidates in the race, the well-connected Patrick Gagnon, a lobbyist from eastern Quebec, or the equally credentialed Françoise Paty, a secretary at Power Corp. and the wife of a Quebec MP.

Yes, it’s true, Maharaj concedes, “I’m totally out of the mold.”

Is he too good to be true?

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