Unlike the 2017 polls, when Punjab had witnessed its highest-ever participation of the NRI (Non-Resident Indian) volunteers in the poll campaign, the upcoming state Assembly elections have not evoked the same response from Punjabis settled abroad.
With a little over three weeks left for voting, only some close relatives of a few candidates and some overseas members of various parties are likely to take part in the physical campaign in the state, sources said.
A number of NRIs, who spoke to The Indian Express, said that the Covid pandemic was one of the key reasons why many of them had decided to stay away from physical electioneering in Punjab this time. The then entry of the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) into the Punjab fray as a new contender in the 2017 Assembly polls was a big draw for many NRI volunteers. And the AAP’s dismal performance then also led to a section of them losing interest in state politics.
During the 2017 election campaign, about 5,000 NRI volunteers had been active on the ground in Punjab after reaching the state from the USA, Canada, UK, Australia, Germany, Italy and several other countries.
Surinder Mavi, a well known Toronto-based NRI who had mobilised a large number of Punjabi NRIs under the “Chalo Punjab” campaign in favour of the AAP in the run-up to the 2017 polls, said that he has no plans to come to Punjab this time.
A member of the Punjab AAP media team, Atam Prakash Singh, asserted that the pandemic was the major reason for NRIs not coming to campaign in the 20 February Punjab elections. “Their businesses were hit by Covid and their financial condition is not as good as in the pre-pandemic period, leading to their absence in the election campaign this time,” he said.
Recalling NRIs’ support for the AAP in the previous elections and how their participation had then made the campaign “colourful”, Atam said “they still give us a lot of moral support”.
The AAP had claimed in 2017 that around 35,000 NRIs had undertaken electioneering for the party in the 117 Assembly constituencies across Punjab.
Congress minister and candidate from Hoshiarpur’s Urmur seat, Sangat Singh Gilzian, who claims significant NRI support as his entire extended family lives in the US, admitted that only a few family members will come to campaign for him this time because of the Covid situation.
Gilzian said that NRIs have taken a keen interest in the Punjab elections and that a large number of the NRI volunteers have been coming to campaign in Punjab since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Prior to 2014, a handful of overseas members of different political parties and their supporters used to come to join the poll campaigning in Punjab.
The AAP’s electoral success in Delhi and its foray into the Punjab polls seemed to be a key factor in attracting many
NRI volunteers to Punjab’s campaign trail. Upset over issues like sacrilege and drugs, they wanted to “teach traditional parties a lesson”, said a Canada-based NRI Kulbir Singh, who hails from Tanda in Punjab.
“Despite a wave of AAP in 2017, our aggressive campaign could not form the third alternative government in Punjab, and then we decided to leave the state to its people only,” said Sudershan Singh, an NRI from Canada, who had campaigned in the 2014 and 2017 elections. He also said that a majority of the NRI volunteers were “upset” over the way the people of Punjab voted in favour of the Congress in 2017.
The North American Punjabi Association (NAPA)’s executive director Satnam Singh Chahal said that NRIs were less interested in flying to Punjab for poll campaigning due to Covid and may support political parties digitally. There are about 55 lakh NRIs from Punjab living in various countries across the globe.