Punjab is known as much for its rich heritage, food, tradition and culture, as it is known for its diaspora. Punjabis have made a second home in among other countries the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, Germany and Italy. Come elections, and a seizeable number of this diaspora heads home, to their pind, to take part in the “festival of democracy”, as campaigners and, sometimes, even as candidates – something that was visible in February 2017 when Punjab elected its 117-member Assembly. The state polls had witnessed maximum number of NRI campaigners ever in Punjab, with the volunteers going door to door and holding road shows under ‘Punjab Chalo’ campaign. The 2019 Lok Sabha polls, however, has witnessed a lukewarm response from the diaspora. What happened in two years that the NRIs lost their love for Punjab elections. The Indian Express attempts to explain:
What was the number of NRI campaigners in Punjab in 2017 elections?
According to a conservative estimate, around 5000 NRI volunteers had arrived in Punjab to support political parties, mainly the Aam Aadmi Party, which was seeking to come up as alternative to the revolving door governments of the SAD-BJP combine and the Congress. The NRIs had even taken out roadshows across Punjab. The AAP, in an official statement released then, had claimed that around 35,000 NRIs had campaigned for the party across 117 Assembly constituencies of Punjab. The NRIs, it said, had campaigned at their own expense then.
The 2014 Lok Sabha polls too had witnessed a large number of NRI volunteers reaching Punjab. Prior to that only the overseas members of respective political parties and some of their supporters used to land in Punjab during the polls. In previous elections, the NRIs used to hand over money openly to the candidates as election fund.
Why was the reason behind the surge in their numbers in 2017?
After witnessing the landslide victory of the AAP in Delhi elections – AAP had won 67 of the 70 Vidhan Sabha seats), the Punjab diaspora started pitching for AAP government in Punjab too. The NRIs felt that the SAD-BJP combine and the Congress, which ruled Punjab in turns, had failed to eradicate the drug menace from the state. Also, they were upset with the sacrilege of Shri Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh religious book) in Punjab in 2015 and wanted to teach a lesson to the then ruling Akali Dal for not bringing to book the culprits behind the incident. According to the NRIs, the two parties had escalated the agrarian crisis and the drug menace in the state.
“There was a huge wave for AAP in 2017 and if that aggressive wave could not help form a third front government in the state then we should leave this state to people of Punjab only,” said SS Khurana, who lives in Canada and had aggressively campaigned in 2014 and 2017 elections.
“I am not coming this time,” said Surinder Mavi, an NRI from Canada, and who was looking after AAP’s Chalo Punjab move in Doaba region in 2017.
How many NRI volunteer campaigners have come to Punjab this time?
The number is not even in two digits. Only the relatives of few candidates and some overseas members of various parties reached Punjab to campaign.
The diaspora is quite upset the way people of Punjab voted in favour of Congress in 2017. The AAP, which had emerged as the second largest party in 2017, saw a lot of infighting, bickering, and defections. The AAP’s Punjab leaders were not happy with the working style of party’s Delhi leadership, which was controlling everything here. Also there was a lack of transparency in AAP’s working. NRIs found that it has been shaping into the mould of other traditional parties.
“We don’t consider that any out of the box party is present in Punjab which could be supported,” said executive director, North American Punjabi Association (NAPA), Satnam Singh Chahal, adding that no NRI is interested this time in supporting AAP too. “I am in Punjab. I had put up a request on my Facebook that NRIs who have come to Punjab for campaigning voluntarily can contact me. Not a single response came,” he said.
“The last election (2017) taught us that coming here to support a party in election is a waste of time and money,” said Amandeep Singh, who is living in the USA.
What is the role of NRI Sabha in the elections of Punjab?
With nearly 55 lakh Punjabis settled abroad, the NRI Sabha was formed in late 1990s for taking up the matters related to diaspora. It has around 25,000 members (several of them have quit now). Earlier, its elections used to held after an interval of 2-3 years but now elections are due since January 2015. Jasvir Singh Gill was its last president who was relieved in 2017.
Due to indifferent attitude of successive governments towards NRI Sabha election and dropping of the ‘NRI Sammelan or NRI Sangat Darshan’, an annual affair, they seem to have lost interest in Punjab’s affairs. “There are lakhs of Punjabis living abroad, but they are not ready to invest here because of the indifferent attitude of the governments,” said Chahal, adding that even property and other local disputes of the diaspora were not solved for long by the governments here despite having NRI police stations.