With pre-poll surveys indicating a close fight between the two traditional rivals in the coming Assembly polls, political parties in Kerala are taking their campaign to the Middle East, where about 90 percent of the estimated 20 lakh Non-Resident Keralites (NRKs) live.
Though only about 15,000 of these expatriates have registered their names in the voters’ list so far, most parties consider even this small number crucial since the gap between the votes polled by the winner and loser in an election is mostly very thin in the state.
It was as low as 0.89 percent in the 2011 Assembly election in which 75.12 percent of the total 2.29 crore voters cast their votes. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) that came to power then with a wafer thin majority polled only 1.56 lakh votes more than the total votes secured by rival Left Democratic Front (LDF).
Candidates in many constituencies had razor thin victories. A former minister scraped through by a margin of just 157 votes at Piravom in Ernakulam district. The margin of victory in three other constituencies was less than 500. It was between 500 and 1,000 votes in five constituencies and between 1,000 and 5,000 in 17 seats.
Parties count not just the registered NRK voters, but also their family members who mostly go by the preference of their bread winners. They think they can get the votes of the dependents by winning over the expats. Therefore, they are focusing more on the expats than their dependents in the state.
Even though many of the countries in the Middle East do no permit political activity, all major parties are active in most of the countries through their cultural wings. Some constituencies have even separate organisations in countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, which account for majority of overseas Keralites.
These organisations run the poll campaign through group meetings and conventions as in the state. They also facilitate members to keep in contact with their dependents back home through text messages and telephones. They ensure that their members telephone the family members in the morning on the polling day and convey their choice.
"Dependents of NRKs constitute a major chunk of the electorate in Kerala. Assuming that each NRK has at least two dependents back home, the number of votes the expats can influence comes to 40 lakh. This is a huge number that can definitely influence the poll outcome," says P C Vishnunath, Congress candidate at Chengannur in Alappuzha district.
Vishnunath, who has run a personal campaign in Kuwait and Bahrain a month ago said the Overseas Indian Cultural Congress (OICC), the overseas wing of the party, has been running a systematic campaign abroad under the supervision of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), targeting the dependents through their kin overseas.
"We also have Chengannur association in many countries in the Gulf. I am keeping in constant touch with members of these organisations through social networking sites and mobile applications," Vishnuath told Firstpost.
Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second largest constituent of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress, has also launched an aggressive campaign in the Middle East through the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMC), the overseas wing of the party.
Apart from canvassing votes of the family members of their members in the Gulf, KMCC is also trying to take registered voters to the state for the voting. They had operated chartered flights in the last Assembly and Lok Sabha elections for the purpose.
Party candidate, P K Basheer, who returned from a week-long campaign in Saudi Arabia, said they were expecting more NRKs to come to the state for voting this time. Many of them will be coming in advance and join the campaign, he said adding that the NRKs were highly enthusiastic about the election.
"Those who are unable to come for the voting are keeping in touch with their family members and friends and urging them to vote for the UDF. They are impressed by the developmental activities and various measures undertaken by the UDF government for the welfare of the expats," said Basheer, who is contesting the election from Ernad constituency in Malappuram district.
His colleague Abdurahman Randathani, who returned from a week-long campaign in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), said that NRKs from his constituency had already started booking their tickets to come for the voting.
"We are helping them to do group booking so that they can get discounted fares. My attempt is to bring all the registered voters to my constituency on the polling day," says Randathani, who is contesting the election from Tanur in Malappuram district.
The Left parties, which do not have any umbrella organisation in the Middle East as the Congress and IUML have, are focusing more on online campaign. They rely more on online chat options and messaging apps for connecting with the overseas Keralites. WhatsApp, Skype and Beyluxe Messenger are popular chat options that candidates use to seek votes from outside voters.
Senior leaders are also using the new media to connect with the overseas Keralites. Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan, who is tipped to be the chief minister in the event of LDF coming to power, is live on the LDF Facebook page, interacting with people mostly living outside the state.
“The overseas Keralites are active in the new media. They have their own dreams and visions about the state. These use the social media to air their views. We are trying to reach out to them and understand their vision and dreams through online forums," the senior CPM leader said.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which has launched an aggressive campaign to end their electoral drought in Kerala, is focusing on expats through Sangh Parivar outfits active in the Middle East in different names. Party president Kummanam Rajashekharan, who toured the Middle East once, will be going again to coordinate the campaign, a party spokesman said.
The parties eye not only the expat votes but also their financial support to keep the campaign machinery running. Most parties have turned to the NRKs for funds after liquor barons stopped funding the parties following the closure of liquor bars under the phased prohibition policy of the UDF government.
Even though the recession caused by the sharp fall in the price of crude oil has hit businesses in the Gulf, the fund-starved parties are relying on the NRKs as the scope for raising funds from within the industrially-backward state is very limited. Most parties have launched fund raising drives in the Gulf along with the campaign.
NRK activists believe that expats from Kerala can impact the poll outcome in a big way even though their plea for online voting facility is yet to become a reality. Sharjah-based Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust chairman K V Shamsudheen said that the NRKs and their dependents is now the single largest vote bank in Kerala.
He said that it is a solid vote bank as the expats hold huge sway over the votes of their families. This is more so among the Muslims who constitute a major chunk of the expat population. He says the current estimates about the votes of NRKs and their family members may not be correct as they are based on random studies.
“The actual number of Keralites abroad is roughly 30 lakh. This takes the number of dependents to 60 lakhs. If those who have returned from abroad over the years and their family members is also added to this, it will touch about one crore. This is a huge vote bank that no party can ignore,” says Shamsudheen.
"If the NRKs judiciously use their votes they will be able to decide who should rule Kerala. Unfortunately, the NRKs are blindly following the parties and gifting their votes without even ensuring that their interests are protected," he said.
He said that more than 95 percent of the Keralites working in the Gulf countries were from the lower income groups and they will have nothing to fall back on when they return to their home state today or tomorrow.
Shamsudheen, who has been spearheading a campaign for cultivating saving habits among the expats, said that the political parties had not done anything for the NRKs even though their remittances account for about 35 percent of the state's GDP.
"If the political parties create at least a conducive atmosphere to make productive use of the remittances, which crossed Rs 1 lakh crore last year, it will secure the future of a large number of the NRKs, who are now frittering their hard-earned money on building posh bungalows and luxuries."
Shamsudheen hopes that NRKs may take the initiative to set a different development agenda for Kerala once they get the facility to vote from overseas locations. He hopes this will come in place before the next election as the Election Commission is waiting for an amendment in the People's Representaion Act to introduce proxy voting or e-postal ballots.