Who foots the bill as planeloads of NRIs come to campaign for AAP?
SAD may have promised that if elected, it would buy land in US and Canada for Punjabis, but it’s AAP that’s riding on the back of Non-Resident Punjabis, many who are here with a personal axe to grind
They have arrived in planeloads. Some say the number is 3,500, while other estimates put the number of NRIs flying in from Canada, US and the UK to campaign for political parties in Punjab much higher. Most of them are said to be rooting for the Aam Aadmi Party.
Punjab is one of the few states where the state government has a department and created special courts and laws for NRIs. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has flirted with the Sikh diaspora for years. Funds for contesting elections were always raised by a section of the NRIs and the joke in Punjab was that Akalis one day could decide to contest elections in Canada. So in a way, the arrival of NRIs to campaign does not come as a surprise.
“NRI support did not stop at making donations. And there is little doubt that AAP has received help from a lot of front organisations abroad espousing a separate Khalistan; the chartered flights are suspected to have been booked by these fronts,” explains a veteran analyst.
What is surprising this time is not the number, but that the anti-Akali sentiment among the AAP-supporting NRIs is so strong that it’s not letting them hear voices from Delhi—where there is a rising litany of complaints against the AAP Government. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi tried to hammer that point home in his Majitha rally on January 27, when he said “Kejriwal ji became CM of Delhi. Now he wants to run away from there because he has not done any work there. Kejriwal ji wants to leave Delhi to become the CM of Punjab, but Punjab wants a Punjabi CM.” Interestingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his Jalandhar rally on January 27 targeted the Congress party and not AAP, indicating who he thought was the main challenger in Punjab against the SAD-BJP combine.
“Right now Kejriwal is their messiah, their mistaken passion would have to be borne by the locals” says Bhai Baldeep Singh, who contested the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 as an AAP candidate from Khadoor Sahib constituency, only to be suspended from the party in April 2015.
Family disputes motivating NRIs
The foremost reason for the overbearing presence of the NRIs in this election is their disenchantment with law and order. Most NRIs from Punjab left land and houses behind, which were in time usurped by relatives or intruders. The Akali Government established dedicated grievance cells for the NRIs, monitored by an Officer on Special Duty (OSD) to the Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal. But although the state Government claims to have sorted out 65% of the complaints received by the cells, Akalis themselves confide that many of the disputes were family disputes that they were unable to solve.
As long as things were rosy abroad, some sort of understanding worked within families and the NRI didn’t claim a share of the property. With the economic meltdown, when mortgages went unpaid and banks came knocking on their doors, the NRIs began demanding shares in the property back home to be sold to pay for their properties abroad. The local relatives, themselves not in sound financial health, would turn to the police and the administration. This turned many NRIs against the SAD government.
Whose money is it anyway?
But it still does not explain why and how NRIs in such large numbers seem to be donating to AAP, chartering flights and presumably spending their own money to come and campaign for the party. “Yes, their support did not stop at making donations. And there is little doubt that AAP has received help from a lot of front organisations abroad espousing a separate Khalistan; the chartered flights are suspected to have been booked by these fronts,” explains a veteran analyst. “Khalistan supporters of course were opposed to the Congress and since SAD didn’t work out for them, AAP is their untried alternative,” he adds.
AAP insiders, however, insist its NRI supporters are successful professionals. “Chalo Punjab” campaign is spearheaded either by the elderly Punjabi NRIs who are nostalgic or by those who left the country recently, they claim. The obvious contradiction is that those not doing well abroad could not have spent their own money to fly back and campaign for the election.
“I know several of them on social media; the elderly have nothing to lose and yes, those who are not well settled abroad are looking for opportunities here. There is strong opposition to SAD among them, but it does not seem consolidated or coordinated. NRIs alone can’t make a dent,” says Deep Jagdeep Singh, a traveling publisher and distributor of books from Ludhiana.