Leadership 2022: Despite losing the BC NDP leadership race, Anjali Appadurai isn’t going anywhere

Appadurai was the only person to challenge Vancouver-Point Grey MLA David Eby.

Anjali Appadurai

Appadurai was the only person to challenge Vancouver-Point Grey MLA David Eby

This year, we focus on those who have taken on new roles at the top of an organization recently, and quiz them about the changing landscape of leadership.

It’s possible that, by the time you’re reading this, Anjali Appadurai’s name has already drifted away from the public consciousness, like so many other names of politicians that held our collective attention for one reason or another and then faded as quickly as they came.

Appadurai was the 32-year-old BC NDP leadership contestant—the only person to challenge Vancouver-Point Grey MLA and former attorney general and housing minister David Eby for the right to replace outgoing premier John Horgan.

Born in India, Appadurai moved with her family to Coquitlam when she was six. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Maine-based liberal arts institution College of the Atlantic before building a career in advancing environmental issues, including time spent at organizations like West Coast Environmental Law, the Sierra Club and the Climate Emergency Unit. She also ran for the federal NDP in the 2021 election, losing to Liberal candidate Taleeb Noormohamed by less than 500 votes.

Clearly, she wasn’t deterred from entering politics. “I think it was the first opportunity I had to put into practice these values I have around social movements being an essential part of democracy,” she says when asked what she learned in her first electoral bout. “I was the social movement candidate then, and [I was] the social movement candidate in this race, too. That first election experience was a great exploration of how social movements fit into the overall system; it was an experiment in a lot of ways. Not that I was the first one to do it—I’m part of a wave of insurgent candidacies across the continent.”

The BCLC never published odds for the race (wouldn’t that be something, given Eby’s skirmishes with the organization), but all accounts early on were that Eby—who had the support of an overwhelming number of current MLAs—would glide to an easy victory. That was put into question somewhat, given rumours that Appadurai signed up many more members than Eby. Ultimately, she was disqualified from the race after the BC NDP executive voted to support chief electoral officer Elizabeth Cull’s report that found she had broken the rules around third-party support. But Appadurai says she isn’t leaving the NDP and you can bet that she doesn’t have plans to simply fade into the background.

“People really do want transformative change, and when all we’re offered is incrementalism, we just go with the flavour of incrementalism that seems most palatable at the time,” she says. “But what gets people excited is a positive vision of the future that puts their wellbeing at the core of it. We didn’t have enough time [in the federal election] to see that happen, but the momentum that was built in the last weeks really showed me that; the energy at the doors really showed me that.”

That different way of approaching politics was evident in Appadurai’s platform as well. “The platform kind of sidesteps the traditional model of having different policy buckets with prescriptions for each,” she explains. “It’s about climate justice—an overarching approach to the intersections of all our systems. It will look at how climate intersects with our health- care system, with housing, with education. Climate is considered an overarching framework, not just one part of it.”

Many aspiring political leaders these days seem to be either long-time backbenchers or corporate leaders. Appadurai is neither, but stresses that her time serving at or near the top of influential organizations has pushed her to lead collaboratively.

“I believe that we have the expertise we need to bring even the most transformative vision to life, and so my leader- ship style is really about build- ing really strong coalitions,” she says, citing leaders like former NDP premier Dave Barrett and Rosemary Brown—who became the first black woman elected to a provincial legislature when she won Vancouver Burrard for the NDP in 1972—as “brave politicians” in whose footsteps she hopes to follow.

“That’s the skill that’s prob- ably strongest from my time in activism—coalition building and recognizing the gifts and expertise that folks can bring and allowing them the space to bring their best to our collective effort. It’s a de-centralized and collaborative approach that sees the leader not as the person on top, but rather the person who connects everyone and brings out the best in them.”

Again, it feels like this isn’t the last time you’re going to hear from Appadurai. A win in Vancouver Granville would have been a first for an NDP candidate, and a big upset. She almost did it. Beating a sitting minister with widespread MLA support as a party outsider would have been historic. Many say she was about to do it.

But one thing is clear: stopping isn’t an option. “Before last year, my plan wasn’t to enter electoral politics, but the experience made me feel like it was a good fit for the coalition building I’ve done,” she says. “I don’t see this as my last attempt at electoral politics.”

Q&A with Anjali Appadurai

Who are your role models today? Who would you look to for inspiration?

In the electoral context, I’ve been reading a lot about Dave Barrett recently. I have to mention him and Rosemary Brown as leaders who had a similar vision for the NDP that I do. Obviously, it’s a different time and context, but [they were] brave politicians. Most of my mentors and folks I look up to are from the social movement side—land defenders across the world. Folks who put their lives on the line for the values they believe in, who understand the interconnectedness between our lived environments.