PUNJAB POLLS 2022: THE NRI ANGLE
Out of 28 million population of Punjab, 21.5 millions are registered voters, of which 72% (around 15.5 millions) voted, of which 42% or around 6.5 million voters voted for Aam Aadmi Party, giving it 92 out of 117 seats in the Assembly, catapulting Sardar Bhagwant Singh Mann to power as the Chief Minister with his 11-member cabinet, having 4 Dalits and 1 woman minister in it.
One of the key aspects of Punjab polls has always been the NRI factor, since not less than 10% of the 50 million plus Indian origin people spread across the world are of Punjabi origin. Investigations by some media houses on March 10 last revealed that the residents of the towns and surrounding localities of Doaba and Malwa regions of Punjab had started receiving calls about trends in Punjab Assembly election results early from the morning from their friends and relatives settled in various states of US, Canada, New Zealand, Norway and Australia.
Unlike their massive involvement during 2017 assembly elections in Punjab, non-resident Indians (NRIs) with roots in Punjab were initially a little less excited about the February 20 polls. Many NRIs felt disenchanted as they didn’t see their dream of a new Punjab getting fulfilled by leaders, especially those who have been shifting parties. Several of them made references to those who left traditional parties to join newer ones, especially the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Earlier before 2015, most Punjabi NRIs supported People’s Party of Punjab led by Manpreet Singh Badal, which later merged into Congress.
In the 2017 polls, the NRIs routed for AAP as a force of change and aggressively so. But this time around there was some disenchantment. In 2017 elections, NRIs had shown much interest as they expected a new party (AAP) to gain power, but this time around they had less hope since AAP was seen welcoming leaders from traditional parties, including those who face charges of corruption. In 2017, not only NRIs had supported a new political party like AAP financially, but also helped it by canvassing for its candidates.
A large number of NRIs believed that the majority of MLAs from traditional parties had no stand or sincerity to their own party, and therefore they would be of little use or even loyal to the public. They had become self-centred. Instead of focusing on public issues, they were more interested in personal accusations at other leaders.
“We want to see a prosperous Punjab. For that, we wish to see some change happening. At some point of time, we would also want to return to our state if such a change happens on the ground. With inflation rising here in US or in Canada and buying a house becoming difficult especially for those coming from India, it is not a good scenario for us here. We too want to shift from this fast-paced life to a more peaceful life in our ancestral villages,” noted an US based Punjabi NRI, Surjeet Singh Dhanda before the February 20 elections.
As the election campaigning picked up this time, in villages which have substantial populations of NRIs, there are voters who say that NRIs have asked them to vote for change. “Though NRIs are not active in this election as they were in 2017, they have asked us to vote for candidates who can bring change in the system and fulfil the dream of peaceful and prosperous Punjab. Recently some NRIs have come here to attend marriages,” said Chamkaur Singh, a prominent villager from Chakkar. The village which has hundreds of NRIs, has infrastructure like lake, park, waiting halls, guest house, mostly developed with the help of Indian diaspora.
Many NRIs said whichever government comes in Punjab, it should help in eradicating corruption in public offices, work against drug abuse and provide employment to the unemployed. They said the government should also help increase the income of farmers.
London Dreams is among several resorts named after a European city dotting the Jalandhar-Kapurthala highway with owners having a direct or an indirect NRI connect. Not surprisingly, Doaba region is aptly called the “NRI belt” of Punjab and the NRI influence on the electoral fortunes cannot be underestimated. With almost every household in Doaba having a family member settled abroad, it is this chunk that political parties were aggressively targeting in the February 20 assembly elections.
Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Kapurthala and Nawanshahr have a high concentration of NRIs who religiously participate in the state assembly elections. In the 2017 elections, there have been instances when family members have influenced others on which candidate to vote for.
So, what are the issues NRIs were looking at this time? Stability and better business environment, say the NRI families. With two years of Covid-19 pandemic having impacted the global economy, these families are hoping for a stable business environment.
For 75-year-old Gulshan Singh Ghai of Jalandhar, which has been the hub of immigration, elections in Punjab have been an integral part of their visit not only to cast their vote but to also tell their family members whom to vote for. Ghai’s family members live in Canada. “The pandemic has rocked the world, jobs and business of our kin’s abroad have come under duress. We don’t have any control over foreign economies but yes when it comes to the local economy, we want someone at the helm who provides stable and durable government,” commented Ghai.
Sharing his sentiments, another NRI, Karamveer Singh, says, “Elections in the home state are important for every resident because the future of the state depends (on it).” Karamveer further said they do show their interest and cast vote but, unlike earlier, they do not get involved now in campaigning.
Political leaders agree that the NRIs is a segment that cannot be ignored. It is not only their influence but it is their reach in the diaspora, which is important for brand building, the state politicians opine.
A significant 5.45 per cent drop in the voter turnout for the 2022 Punjab polls initially had left political parties and analysts baffled, with most of them trying to wrap their heads around what went wrong.
The state witnessed the lowest voter turnout of the past two decades this time. Compared to 77.40 per cent in 2017, the state recorded 72 per cent this time. In 2002, it was 65.14 per cent, when in a tight contest with the SAD-BJP combine, the Congress had come to power.
In the last election, AAP had gained substantially in the Malwa region and this time too it was seen as the epicenter of AAP’s undercurrent.
The senior AAP leader Harpal Cheema, who is now the Finance Minister of the state, had denied the party’s chances would be impacted due to low voter turnout. “Whatever might be the claim of the other opposition parties, it is clear that AAP is coming to power in Punjab. Areas where we had expected high voting have shown results,’’ Cheema told News18.com.
As political parties get down to analysing factors for the low poll turnout, some leaders attributed it to factors ranging from disillusionment with the poll process to low participation of NRIs in the process. With a huge chunk of youth voters migrating to foreign shores in the last five years, their return and involvement in the poll process, according to leaders, could have lifted the overall voter sentiment.
“The pandemic, coupled with high airfares, acted as a deterrent to these voters returning and pitching in. Last time, a big chunk of our votes came from this segment, adding to the voter turnout,” claimed a senior AAP leader.
Several Punjabi NRI known social leaders welcome today the defeat of the entire Badal family and the top brass of the Congress, and an overwhelming majority to AAP, which shall allow it to bring forth all the measures it wants to and fulfil the myriad promises given to the electorate before the polls. While some NRIs would have expected Aman Arora or Jeevanjyot Kaur (who defeated Sidhu and Majithia) to be ministers in Punjab (which may happen in the cabinet expansion later), they are happy with the first ten days of Mann government: declaring anti-corruption call number, giving compensation for crop loss to farmers, regularizing 35,000 contract employees of the state government, filling up 15,000 blank positions in the government, calling for a complete stop to mining corruption and corruption in land deals, et al.
Harjinder Singh of Canada or Rajinder Kaur of Australia today see a new light and a possibility. They say many would not mind returning to Punjab if Mann government can manage to rein in corruption, reverse drug addiction, and bring forth positive business environment in the state.
Recently Khalsa Aid and Punjabi NRI Sabha have called for full cooperation with the Mann government and contribute in every possible way in implementing a progressive governance in the state, as the government would want.
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