Flying Sikhs woo NRIs. But will this translate into votes?

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Punjab politicians go all out to woo the vast diaspora, a votebank that could play a decisive role in the Assembly election. Sai Manish reports

Voice of motherland Manpreet Singh Badal addresses a 20,000-strong crowd in Surrey, Canada
Voice of motherland Manpreet Singh Badal addresses a 20,000-strong crowd in Surrey, Canada

WHEN MANPREET Singh Badal arrived at the Stetson Bowl in Surrey, Canada, he was in for a shock. Wading through swathes of supporters to a rousing reception, it dawned on the 49-year-old nephew of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal that this meeting on foreign soil eclipsed many of his rallies back home, with 20,000 people of all age groups filling up the stands and the turf.

No wonder then that the Akali Dal renegade and founder of the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) chose to deviate from his usual script to acknowledge what he saw. “I know you are citizens of a country where people don’t even have the time to greet each other. The fact that you all have turned up in such large numbers shows how much you love your motherland,” said an emotional Badal. By the end of his hour long speech, many senior citizens in the audience were seen wiping their tears.

Surrey was the biggest success in Badal’s whirlwind 14-day campaign tour of the US and Canada. Rallies at Chicago and Calgary saw impressive turnouts. Badal formed the PPP in March after he was expelled from the Akali Dal last October.

Taken aback by the ripples created by Badal across North America, his opponent and Congress president Capt. Amarinder Singh went live on a couple of Canadian and American radio stations beaming his views to over five lakh people. On the popular Punjabi-language Harjinder Thind Show, the former chief minister fielded questions on his vision for Punjab.

NRIs have much more than purse strings to loosen this time. They have the right to vote

The next in line to tap into the NRI votebank is the Akali Dal with its NRI Affairs Minister Balbir Singh Bath in the process of finalising the details of his foreign tour. “We don’t know how many of them will come to vote but the fact is that they can influence voters back home. The Akali Dal has done a lot for NRIs and we will make them aware of the benefits of voting for us,” says Bath.

The Punjabi expat community is vibrant, hardworking, well-heeled, politically aware and has strong links back home. That made the Punjabi NRI a safe bet for politicians looking to fund their poll campaigns. The NRIwas the politician’s cash cow and still continues to invest heavily in development works, at times even fulfilling election manifesto promises with his money.

With Assembly elections just six months away, the NRIs have much more than their purse strings to loosen this time. They have been given the right to vote. And with close to 15 million Punjabis around the globe — many of them eligible to vote — leaders are making sure they make inroads into this new votebank.

In a state like Punjab where every second family has a relative settled abroad, the next few months could see a phenomena not witnessed yet. Since the notification of The Registration of Electors (Amendment) Rules, 2011, by the Centre in February that permits ‘overseas electors’ to vote and stand for elections in India, there has been an unprecedented buzz among the Punjabi NRI community.

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Punjabi Diaspora*

UK 3,36,000

Canada 2,78,400

US 2,50,000

Malaysia 1,00,000

East Africa 1,00,000

Italy 70,000

Thailand 70,000

UAE 50,000

Germany 40,000

Mauritius 37,700

Australia 26,400

*Not necessarily Indian
passport-holders

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“People have started booking chartered flights as they are cheap and bulk booking would keep the cost down. We expect the support that Manpreet Badal has generated to translate into votes,” says PPP spokesman Arunjot Sodhi.

With great financial muscle and the prestige of being an honourable non-resident, expats hold great sway over the voting patterns in their villages. A clarion call from a well-heeled NRI not only influences votes of their extended families but also of those in the village who have been the direct beneficiaries of their largesse.

This phenomenon is especially evident in the Doaba belt comprising Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur and Nawanshahar districts. There is no village here that does not have a relative settled abroad. One of them is 60-year-old Kewal Singh Khatkar, who went to the UK when he was 10. He spent 40 years there and returned to his native village of Mangowal in Nawanshahar in 2003 to set up a 100-acre farm and a gym for drug addicts.

Although he is a staunch Congress supporter, Khatkar stopped making political donations when he came back to India but claims that his workers and villagers will heed his advice when it comes to making an electoral choice.

THE CHANCE to vote is a golden opportunity for my children who are still in the UK, and for other young Sikhs around the world. I’m telling everybody to come vote and throw out the Akali government that has failed the people of Punjab,” says Khatkar. “The populism of the Akalis has ruined this state and we are on the verge of being counted among the BIMARU states. I own a 100-acre farm on which there are 10 tubewells. Not one gets adequate electricity. Our wells have been sucked dry due to their free power scheme. I tell all the NRIs to come back and vote for the Congress and see the power of change that they can bring about with their vote.”

Ready to take flight NRI Affairs Minister Balbir Singh Bath and ex-CM Amarinder Singh
Ready to take flight NRI Affairs Minister Balbir Singh Bath and ex-CM Amarinder Singh
Photo:Prabhjot Singh Gill

The right to vote given to NRIs may now add a new dimension to the phenomenon of influencing voters through community bonds, a trend evident in Punjab. What we could witness in the run-up to the Assembly election is the increased frequency of ‘political charters’ where groups of people come together in a chartered plane to vote en masse for the party of their choice. Every chartered flight would ferry only supporters of a particular party.

But the response till now has not been too encouraging. According to the Election Commission, barely 50 NRIs have registered themselves as voters. However, observers feel that the number will increase manifold once the commission sets the ball rolling with its election notification.

But before the NRIs can be brought down to vote, the tricky part is to convince them to vote for a particular political party. For one, they are unlikely to be swayed by regional issues and parochial viewpoints.

“The articulation of one’s agenda will be crucial in garnering votes,” says social scientist C Lakshmanan. “Most of the Punjabi NRIs are likely to come from the US, Canada, UK and Australia where those seeking votes have an agenda for the economy, society, culture and probity in public life. In India, state elections are hardly fought on macro issues.

“Issues like caste loyalties, freebies and populist measures decide outcomes. But you can’t go and tell a Punjabi NRI, ‘Please come and vote for me because I am a Jat or I will give you a free TV or a car.’ The NRI’s priorities are completely different.”

Party time in Canada PPP supporters arrive at the Stetson Bowl in Surrey to hear Badal’s address
Party time in Canada PPP supporters arrive at the Stetson Bowl in Surrey to hear Badal’s address
Photo:K Sateesh

AND THAT is why despite the impressive turnout and high emotions at Badal’s Surrey speech, not many were convinced about his vision. “I don’t think tours of the US, Canada and Europe will translate into votes for him,” says Randeep Chahal, a Chicago-based businessman. “I’m yet to be convinced of Badal who is trying to become the King of Punjab for the next five years. Can he define his fiscal, education and agriculture policies more clearly rather than just giving speeches on nefarious travel agents? Why should we vote for him? Why should hard-earned dollars be donated to the PPP? All politicians who go abroad to canvass for votes should have a plan of action that cuts ice with the NRIs.”

So even as Punjabi politicians sharpen their Obamaesque articulation skills, many are gearing up to woo the NRIs. Already a political war has broken out in the state over forcing NRIs to fly down to India to vote instead of casting their ballots at the Indian embassies in their respective countries. Although many believe that NRIs are traditional Congress supporters, the 2007 verdict in the Doaba region, where most of the NRIs hail from, is an indication of how things can change at their beck and call. The Congress managed to win just three out of the 26 seats in Doaba as opposed to the Akali-BJP combine that claimed 20 out of the 25 seats it fought.

Apart from the growing disillusionment with a fractured Congress in 2007, NRI votes were swayed by the Akali manifesto that envisaged a separate NRI ministry with representative offices in North America, Europe and Australia to safeguard their properties in Punjab, a single window clearance for all NRI investments, new urban development policies apart from new international airports at Jalandhar and Ludhiana in the Doaba region. This, coupled with numerous schemes for Dalits, got the Akalis the votes of not just the families of the NRIs but also of the agricultural labourers working on their farms.

In 2007, NRI votes were swayed by the Akali manifesto that envisaged a ministry for them

What would perhaps make things more interesting is the situation in the troubled hotspots of the US, UK and Australia. Sikhs have been at the receiving end of law and order problems and racial hatred. As was evident during the riots in the UK, the lack of police protection made gurdwaras and Sikh businesses highly vulnerable to sabotage forcing young armed Punjabis to hit the streets and protect their community. With a financial crisis looming large, social tensions would only escalate. However, political scientists are still unsure of how such localised events in another country will shape voting choices of the NRIs.

The granting of voting rights to NRIs has thrown open a votebank, unsullied by the vagaries of half-decade-old agendas, caste calculations and cheap populism. A lot depends on how Punjab’s politicians deal with this virgin voter base, which until now had only funded politicians and their politics but now by virtue of its numbers could play a decisive role in Punjab’s keenly contested Assembly election.

Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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