Deepak Obhrai admits with a laugh that it would take a “miracle” for him to win the Conservative leadership race this weekend
But after nine months on the campaign trail, the veteran Calgary Forest Lawn MP calls himself a “happy camper” as the race comes to a close on Saturday.
“The reason I ran, the reason that I put my name forward, I believe I have achieved those reasons. And for that reason, I feel pretty good,” said Obhrai in an interview this week.
“I built my campaign on three major points, which were diversity, inclusiveness and equality. I believe that being on the stage during all that time, during the debates and everything with this strong message, I believe that message has been really well-received.”
Obhrai was born in Tanzania and went to school in that country, India and the United Kingdom before his family emigrated to Canada in 1977. In Calgary, he served as president of the India-Canada Association and the Hindu Society before his election as a Reform MP in 1997.
As a leadership candidate, the longest-serving Conservative MP wasn’t shy about calling out fellow candidate Kellie Leitch’s controversial call for a Canadian values test for newcomers as an attempt to tap into anti-immigrant sentiment.
A longtime friend of Obhrai’s, former federal cabinet minister Peter MacKay, said the Calgarian played an important role in the race with his advocacy of tolerance and inclusiveness.
“It was good he pushed back. He gave voice to what a lot of people were feeling — this is not the route to broadening our party,” said MacKay.
But while Obhrai was focused on keeping the Conservative party a “big blue tent,” he also drew attention for his loose, conversational style while campaigning, with quips such as “not all issues are black and white. they can also be brown.”
Even Obhrai’s mangled attempts at French appeared to prompt affection, rather than derision.
Tim Powers, a longtime Conservative strategist, said Obhrai brought some much-needed lightness into the race.
“He’s been a great tonic for a Conservative party that needed a gin and tonic,” said Powers.
“The tonic has been the humour, the passion, the enthusiasm … he’s helped a party that was both in a dour mood and looked like a dour entity to the public and he’s helped soften the edges of some of the more bristly candidates and their proposals.”
While MacKay said Obhrai played an important if unheralded role in helping to form the Conservative party through the unification of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, he has not been viewed as a major player through his years in Ottawa.
Obhrai, 66, had distinguished himself primarily for serving as parliamentary secretary for the minister of international affairs and for seldom being seen without one of his trademark scarves.
Veteran Parliament Hill journalist Kady O’Malley said that during the Harper years, Obhrai was seen as one of many “interchangeable” MPs reciting government talking points.
The leadership campaign has in a sense been a coming out party for the Calgary MP.
“I was talking to someone the other day and considering the also-ran candidates and of them, Deepak Obhrai is literally the only one I could absolutely say without question has improved his reputation throughout this,” said O’Malley, now a reporter for iPolitics.
“He has come off really well.”
She noted that Obhrai also seems to be held in high regard by his fellow candidates, which isn’t true of all the longshots. Obhrai likely received the most attention during the race when businessman Kevin O’Leary — who dropped out to support Quebec MP Maxime Bernier — announced that Obhrai would be his second choice.
“I love the guy,” said O’Leary in a video.
“Is he going to win? No. But does he deserve my second vote? Yes. I just want to appreciate the work he’s done for such a long time for the Conservative party. And he’s fun to work with.”
O’Malley said Obhrai’s performance has been strong enough that it could help him land a more significant role in the shadow cabinet of the new Conservative leader.
Bernier is seen as the front-runner, while MPs Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole are also viewed as contenders under the Conservatives’ complex voting system, which sees each riding given equal weight in the tally.
Obhrai said he believes the party will be in safe hands if any of the three prevail in the contest.
And while he isn’t banking on the aformentioned miracle to put him in the leaders’ chair, Obhrai said the experience of running for the party’s top job has had its own kind of magic.
“I will never forget this. It was an honour and a privilege and I can tell you, I had the best time,” he said.