Last week there were somewhere between a 100 to over a 1,000 NRIs (Non Resident Indians) all over Punjab trying to persuade their fellow Punjabis to support AAP in the elections. Whether or not their dreams are realised, the Kejriwal disruption looks like it could finally end the rancid politics that has ruled this region for decades.
The idea of a glorious Punjab still has a mythical grip over its worldwide diaspora. You can find a Punjabi anywhere and bond with them over the culture, the music, food, language and yes, the homeland. Punjabis are proud. More than that, we are not shy of telling others we are proud to be Punjabis. We wear that badge with a feeling a mother gets when her son is top of his class.
But there is another bond that Punjabis share: A deep sense of anguish about the state of their homeland. Punjab has gone from the being the bread-basket of India to being the basket-case of India. It used to be one of the richest states in the country, but it is now a mediocre embarrassment. The Punjab that lives on in the imagination of Punjabis abroad is a far cry from the harsh reality that exists there now. Their pleasant memories now look like absurd fantasies.
What is the problem with Punjab? Everyone has their own explanations. Its farmers have been decimated thanks to a mixture of political corruption, lack of reform and innovation, growing debt and exploitation by money-lenders.
Plus there is rampant alcoholism and drug abuse - the issues that Punjab’s ruling classes are too invested in or too afraid to talk about. It perhaps has more drugs-related crime and addicts than any other state in India. The number of alcohol stores shocks outsiders and the stories of drug abuse can make anyone’s stomach churn.
And then there is the deteriorating treatment of women. Punjab is now the second-worst state for its under-six female to male ratio (846 girls to 1,000 boys). So many girls get aborted or murdered as infants that the state is running out of eligible women. The drugs and alcohol crisis has also led to an increase in violence against women.
This isn’t a full list of Punjab’s problems and neither am I claiming that Punjab is doomed. But it is painful to see that such a promising land is in such dire straits.
Over the years, money has been sent back from Punjabis who had left for Britain, America and (more recently) Canada. In recent years many of them have also come back to invest money, start a business or buy property. So where did that money and those opportunities go? Punjab has been blessed with rich resources, with relatively fertile land and some of the most industrious people in the country.
The bigger tragedy is that the spiritual homeland of Sikhs, where 10 Gurus tirelessly led a movement for enlightenment, equality and honesty has long been going in the opposite direction.
How has it come to this? There is little point blaming others for this mess. Punjabis aren’t easily manipulated puppets at the mercy of outside forces. What lies at the heart of its problems is the political establishment that has milked it dry. The stench of corruption is turning everything into dust.
If you even mention the Shiromani Akali Dal to a young Punjabi abroad who is interested in politics, you are likely to get a look of disgust. The party that claims to represent Sikhs has done nothing but let them down. Not that the others are better: the Congress has always been a disappointment (when they are not actively persecuting Sikhs) and the BJP will never understand their concerns.
This leaves the Aam Aadmi Party, which, after a long time, has brought a glimmer of hope among some Punjabis in Britain. That’s presumably why some have travelled back to volunteer for the party (I should say that I have no affiliation with AAP, nor have I ever volunteered for them). But whether the AAP can fulfil all its promises or not, it is clear that Punjab’s political establishment needs shock therapy.
Great empires rarely get destroyed from outside; they are first extinguished, through corruption and incompetence, from the inside. Only then is an outsider is able to defeat them. Punjab’s slow destruction isn’t the work of a central government conspiracy, as much as its politicians like to tell people, it has happened because they care more about lining their own pockets than its people.
This is the first in a long time I have seen desis across the world paying some attention to state elections in hope. Many of them hope, like I do, that its youth stand up and make themselves heard. The hopes and dreams of Punjabis everywhere rests on their shoulders.
Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London
The views expressed are personal