While the recently sworn-in Trump administration in the US is determined to make immigration to the country as tough as possible, the ruling Akali Dal in Punjab has promised in its manifesto for the Assembly polls on February 4 that it will acquire one lakh acres of land, mainly in the US and Canada, which would be made available to Punjabi farmers who want to relocate. The party says it will help the Punjabis in getting US and Canadian visas so they can emigrate and work in the vast stretches of agricultural lands available there.
Along with probably Andhra, Punjab happens to be a rare State that has a separate NRI (Non-Resident Indians) Affairs Department, which, not long ago, was handled by the chief minister. It is because the Punjabi diaspora, like its Telugu and Gujarati counterparts, happens to be an important component of the state’s polity, particularly during elections, be it for the panchayats, the Assembly or Lok Sabha. Punjabi NRIs, predominantly Sikh, number about two million— around 8 per cent of the 25 million- strong Indian diaspora. However, 85 per cent of Punjabi NRIs are now concentrated in Europe, the US and Canada.
It is no wonder therefore that Congress chief ministerial candidate Amarinder Singh began his campaign in May 2016 by embarking on a tour to North America. That he was refused entry to Canada, which did not allow him to hold rallies for political purposes, is another matter, though it is alleged that the Canada government’s decision was influenced by Khalistani elements. Canadian Sikhs number roughly 4,68,670 and account for around 1.4 per cent of Canada’s population. In the present Canada government, there are four Sikh ministers, including defence minister Harjit Sajjan.
The third main political force in Punjab this election, the AAP, is also wooing the Punjabi diaspora. In fact, of the thousands of Punjabi NRIs who have descended in the State over the last one month from the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia, the majority, if press reports are to be believed, are working for the AAP. In several villages, the NRIs arrive a month before polls and go door to door seeking votes.
The NRI factor in Punjab is particularly significant in the Doaba region that comprises nearly a quarter of the State’s population and includes Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur, Phagwara and Phillaur. Known as Punjab’s NRI-hub because of the large scale emigration to the UK, US and Canada, and more important, the continuous interactions between the emigrants and their family members here, the region has not only been helped by family remittances but also by philanthropic projects of the NRIs. Over the years, a number of ‘village welfare associations’ have been formed which perform functions ranging from setting up developmental projects to buying political influence. For instance, they have set up the Guru Nanak Mission Medical and Education Trust in Nawanshahr district, National Rural Development Society in Kapurthala district and Village Life Improvement Board in Hoshairpur district.
In fact, it was because of the initiative of the NRIs that a non-political outfit called ‘NRI Sabha Punjab’ was created way back in 1996 to address the problems of the NRIs in their ‘homeland’. And it has drawn support from every party and every government in the State. As a result, we now have NRI fast-track revenue courts, a judicial court in Jalandhar, and 15 exclusive police stations for the NRIs in various districts, something the incumbent Akali Dal–BJP government is taking credit for and highlighting to woo the diaspora.
It is natural therefore that Punjab NRIs have been politically active. Since the 2002 Assembly polls, some rich NRIs started entering the political arena by financing their favourite candidates, a few even contesting. A study showed how in the 2007 Assembly polls, more than $22 million (a conservative estimate) came to Punjab through the diaspora route from North America and UK. This figure, it is safe to guess, must have gone up steeply in subsequent polls.
There are many reasons why Punjabi NRIs are so involved in the State’s polls. The most important is their concern over the security of their property. In Punjab, it has been common to see properties of the NRIs usurped by caretakers and relatives in connivance with local politicians. And this has been the case under both Congress and Akali regimes. This, perhaps, explains why many NRIs support Arvind Kejriwal, the ‘anti-corruption crusader’.
Secondly, with both the Congress and Akalis failing to deliver justice to those affected by the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, a vocal section of the NRIs in the UK and North America (many of them asylum seekers or refugees because either they or their relatives experienced human rights abuses or feared it), are openly campaigning for the AAP. They had done same during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. In fact, many had taken leave from their jobs to come to India to canvass for AAP, ensuring, in the process, the victories of four AAP candidates.
If the AAP seems to have more NRI supporters, it is because Kejriwal has succeeded in building a perception that Punjab is a State afflicted with poor governance, corruption, and a meddlesome and inflexible bureaucracy. And for this, both the Akalis and Congress are equally responsible. This does not mean the NRIs are a monolithic block and will all vote for the AAP. They do exhibit heterogeneity in terms of economic and political status, class, caste, gender, religious traditions and locality. However, the usual allegations against the Akalis and Congress are that they only woo the rich NRIs who can invest heavily in Punjab. But such rich NRIs are fewer in number. And that is to the AAP’s distinct advantage.
A senior journalist, author and strategic analyst