Punjab’s strong non-resident community has arrived in hordes from Canada, Britain, the US and other countries for the February 4 assembly elections in the state. All major parties are paying special attention to the diaspora — or non-resident Indians (NRIs) — who have arrived here as the community is believed to have an influence on voting prospects in Punjab.
In the past over one year, not only have NRIs extended support to the three major parties in the fray — the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal — but are also believed to have made major financial contribtions to the parties.
Not only this, top leaders of all parties, be it AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal, Punjab Congress President and former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, and Akali Dal President and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, have all travelled abroad in the last one year to woo NRIs.
“The biggest gainer from the NRI support in recent months has been the AAP. A large number of NRIs, particularly from Canada, are already in Punjab to campaign for the party. The NRIs have funded the AAP in a big way,” Harbaksh Singh, a NRI based in Vancouver-Canada, told IANS.
When the first batch of AAP-supporting NRIs landed in New Delhi and Amritsar recently, top AAP leaders like Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, Kumar Vishwas, Sanjay Singh and others welcomed them with full fanfare.
Amarinder Singh recently flagged off a special bus of NRIs, who had come to support the Congress from Britain and Canada, to move around in Punjab and elicit support for the party.
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The NRIs have fanned out in constituencies across Punjab, especially in their respective districts and villages, to campaign aggressively for their respective parties.
On Saturday, carrying “Jhaaru” (broom, the AAP’s election symbol) in one hand and the party’s flag in the other, scores of Punjabi NRIs travelled through villages and towns of Doaba — the area between the Beas and Sutlej rivers comprising the districts of Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur and Nawanshehr — that is also known as the “NRI belt”.
The 300-car cavalcade of NRIs started from Jalandhar, often called the NRI capital of Punjab, urging people to launch a “freedom struggle” in Punjab — from the Akali Dal and Congress.
But the arrival of NRIs has not been without controversy.
Sukhbir Badal recently alleged that the AAP had aligned with pro-Khalistan and radical elements based in other countries.
AAP national General Secretary Sanjay Singh condemned Badal for the remarks and for “branding the whole Punjabi NRI community as terrorists and blaming AAP for getting funds from radicals”.
“Sukhbir Badal’s utterances against NRIs supporting AAP are unwarranted and a great insult of Punjabis settled abroad. NRIs in Canada had extended moral and financial support to AAP to see a prosperous Punjab,” Singh said.
“We (NRIs) have come to Punjab to ensure defeat of the SAD-BJP alliance and Congress. We must save Punjab from mafia rule. AAP is the only and last hope for the people of Punjab,” said Surinder Mavi, convener of the “Chalo Punjab” campaign in Toronto.
Badal’s remarks are being questioned by some.
“NRIs had supported SAD in 2007 and also funded their election campaign with the hope that Akalis would give good governance,” Jagtar Singh Sanghera, head of AAP’s NRI cell, pointed out, adding that the Akalis were now describing the same NRIs, who have switched to supporting AAP, as “terrorists and radicals”.
Joban Randhawa, youth wing convener of AAP in Canada, said that NRIs would work hard to get rid of the present SAD-BJP government. “We will spread into constituencies in Doaba and will target Majitha, the constituency of Bikram Singh Majithia who controls the drug trade. Over 35,000 NRIs have enrolled for the ‘Chalo Punjab’ movement in Canada and many of them would reach Punjab,” Randhawa said.
But not all are convinced about the role of NRIs in Punjab’s assembly elections.
“The NRIs who are coming to Punjab do not have a political background. There are a number of Punjabi NRIs who are successful politicians in the Britain, Canada and United States. They are not coming to campaign in Punjab,” Harjit Gill, who was the first Asian mayor and sheriff of Gloucestershire in England, told IANS.
“Most of the NRIs who have come before the polls are on a holiday. They have no experience in politics. They have collected huge amounts of money from people in these countries in the name of the parties,” said Gill, who hails from Dakoha village near Jalandhar Cantt and is settled in Gloucester city since 1978.
“The NRIs just want a good government and good governance in Punjab, their home state which they love. The parties make big promises to NRIs in their manifestos but there is hardly any implementation of the same,” he added.