They may have a minuscule number of votes in Punjab, but non-resident Indians from the state are coming home in droves to support the political party of their choice. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) volunteers from Canada are taking a chartered flight from Toronto that will land in New Delhi in the wee hours of January 19.
Indian Overseas Congress too is planning to ferry a planeload of supporters from the US in the coming weeks. Never before have NRIs come home for the polls in such large numbers.
Jaskirat Mann, the country convener for AAP in Canada, who has been campaigning in the Malwa belt for the last three months, is now accompanied by a team of evangelical NRIs, who registered for the party’s ‘Chalo Punjab’ campaign. “I tell people how my husband and I were able to set up a transport business in Canada because of the processes there, and how AAP will replicate those here and ensure good governance,” says the articulate former captain of her BEd college at Lopon near Moga, who migrated to Canada in 2002. They also “convert” the dedicated cadre of other parties.
Gurmeet Singh Gill, president of Indian Overseas Congress in the US, will also be taking a break from his chain of gas stations to lead an NRI march in Punjab. “We have 27 units in the US and we plan to charter a plane so that we can all land together, and tour Punjab in a fleet of buses,” says the New York-based Gill.
Akalis abroad have also launched an ‘Aao Punjab Chaliye’ movement, says Satpal Singh Brar, chief spokesman of the SAD in Washington DC.
This surge follows the 2014 parliamentary polls in which NRIs played a crucial role in the victory of greenhorn AAP candidates, contributing both funds and manpower.
Jaspal ‘Jassi’ Khangura, a Congressman who was the first NRI to be elected to the Punjab assembly with tremendous support from the diaspora, says NRIs do influence voters. “But there are degrees of influence. People who emigrated five to eight years ago and were politically active here, carry far more influence than those who left 20 years ago.”
NRIs, says Harjinder Walia, head of journalism department at Punjabi University, Patiala, broker influence because of the money they pump into their native places. “They build schools, hospitals, houses for relatives; and are always forthcoming with funds for marriages and such occasions. So, every NRI has enough goodwill to be an effective influencer.”
They also pack a missionary zeal. AAP volunteers, claims Mann, work from sunrise till past midnight. This may explain why even though Doaba is the traditional hub of NRIs, for polls, the AAP army is concentrating on Malwa, the site of key battles between chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and AAP’s Jarnail Singh on the one hand, and between deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal and AAP’s Bhagwant Mann on the other.
Joban Randhawa, 25, the brains behind AAP’s Chalo Punjab campaign, is leading the NRI charge in Majha, where the Akalis have fielded cabinet minister Bikram Singh Majithia, brother of Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal. Randhawa claims that over 20,000 NRIs have registered on the campaign’s mobile app, which connects them with AAP workers on the ground in their constituency as well as in Canada. Phaljinder Singh from Italy and Tarun Walia from Toronto are among them.
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NRIs say they will be able to counter the impact of demonetisation. “We are mostly businessmen and we will do our spending from our (debit and credit) cards,” says IOC’s Gill.
Khangura says NRIs have three demands: protection of property back home, law and order, and investment-friendly climate. Both Congress and AAP have promised all this, with the Congress manifesto proposing two new legislations.
Spokesman Satpal Brar claims the SAD-BJP government is already doing what NRIs want. “We have a dedicated grievance cell handled by the officer on special duty (OSD) to the deputy CM. It has solved 65 cases in recent past.”
But the Akalis have had a rocky patch with NRIs, evident from discontinuation of annual NRI meets for two years. IOC’s Gill claims that, although the Badals visit the US regularly, they don’t go to gurdwaras, the community hubs, for the fear of adverse reaction.
Akali minister Surjit Singh Rakhra, whose brother, Darshan Singh Dhariwal, is a wealthy NRI with keen interest in Punjab, says NRIs were angry with the party in the 2012 polls, “but have now returned to the Akali fold”.
Walia says NRIs have traditionally backed a third front. “They were upset with the Congress after 1984, and are disenchanted with traditional players.” NRIs had supported the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) led by Manpreet Badal, estranged nephew of CM Badal, in 2012. However, he did not get any seat and the PPP has been merged with the Congress.
Cynics says polls are a drama for the NRIs in which they get to play the neta. “Ask them whether they will return if their party of choice comes to power, and their answer will be a resounding ‘no’,” says an Akali candidate.
Jaskirat Mann admits she has no plans to return for good. “But that doesn’t stop me from working for Punjab.”.