NRI influence key factor in Punjab polls

Hundreds of Canadians of Punjabi origin are making a beeline for their homeland in India lured by rival factions vying to rule the state of Punjab.

The high-octane battle of the ballot for the February 4 Punjab Assembly polls in mainly a three-way battle between the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Congress and the ruling Akali Dal-BJP alliance.

The AAP, with its populist anti-corruption manifesto, is contesting the Punjab polls for first time.

The 2017 Punjab Assembly elections will see the highest number of candidates in race with 1,146 candidates fighting for 117 constituencies.

Around 150 NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) under the aegis of the Indian Overseas Congress are coming from Canada, said Amanpreet Aulakh, a spokesperson for the Indian Overseas Congress (Canada). Some have already already reached India and extended support to the party, he said.

"NRIs from Canada will help take the party's campaign agenda forward on the ground across the state," Aulakh said.

The NRIs will move from one constituency to another in a hired bus to spread the party's message, he said, adding another 250 NRIs will be coming from the UK.

Some 90 Punjabis of Indian origin from Canada’s Toronto area are also flying to Punjab to campaign for the AAP in the February 4 assembly election, the Toronto Star reported.

“I want to be a part of real change,” said Surinder Mavi, a 31-year-old Brampton resident whose planeload of Aam Aadmi Party election volunteers departed Tuesday.

The daily quoted Mavi as saying that his political awakening began with his arrival in Canada eight years ago when he realized that bribes were unnecessary and basic rules like stopping at red lights were respected.

“I thought to myself, ‘Why shouldn’t the system work like this in Punjab?'”

Mavi said the Toronto area volunteers were part of a campaign that would see thousands of Indian expatriates arrive in New Delhi to help the AAP in the state election, the daily said.

Mavi would ride an AAP campaign bus to rally support in 16 of Punjab’s largest constituencies.

"We expect around 3,500 NRIs to reach Punjab and campaign for us over the next two weeks," said AAP Punjab convenor and Batala candidate Gurpreet Singh Waraich. The AAP has launched a "Chalo Punjab" campaign for supporters abroad.

The ruling Akali Dal-BJP alliance has some support from foreign-based Punjabis but this has eroded over the years.

NRIs, says Harjinder Walia, head of journalism department at Punjabi University, Patiala, broker influence because of the money they pump into their native places. “They build schools, hospitals, houses for relatives; and are always forthcoming with funds for marriages and such occasions. So, every NRI has enough goodwill to be an effective influencer.”

Assembly elections will also begin in four other Indian states in February, the Election Commission of India has announced.

Voting will be held in Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur, Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi said.

Polling will be held from 4 February to 8 March. Votes will be counted on 11 March.

Analysts say that the effect of the rupee ban is expected to play a crucial role in all five state elections.

The government said the ban on 500 and 1,000 rupee notes was to curb corruption and the illegal hoarding of wealth as well as promote a shift to digital modes of payment. However, critics said the ban mostly impacted the poor and agrarian communities who largely depend on cash for their daily transactions.

Each of the three main players in Punjab is claiming to be headed for a clear and sweeping majority in the elections.

The AAP started its political campaign in June last year but allegations of corruption in allotment of ridings, accusations of immoral activities by some leaders and a lack of any big name from Punjab, have all taken a toll on the party.

AAP wants to repeat a Delhi-type political magic in Punjab when it won 67 of the 70 assembly seats in the 2015 assembly polls.

The ruling Akali Dal-BJP alliance, which has been in power in the state since 2007 for two consecutive terms, is aiming for a third stint

But it faces an anti-incumbency sentiment of the past decade, charges of corruption, and criticism about financial health and clout of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.

There also allegations of the Badals patronising drug cartels and other criminal activities in the sand mining, infrastructure, transport and cable TV industries.

For the Congress, a victory in Punjab would be the first sign of hope since it went into coma after the advent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the scene.

In 2013, since it lost Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Chhattisgarh, the Congress has managed to win only in Karnataka. A string of losses has put it on the verge of disappearance.

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