With nearly 70,000 Non-Resident Keralites (NRKs) enrolling their names in the state voters' list, political parties are planning an intensive campaign in Gulf countries, where more than 2 million Keralites live. Senior leaders of both the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and Opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) have already visited major Gulf countries before the announcement of the poll dates.
While Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s maiden visit to United Arab Emirates (UAE) — which has the most NRKs (8.10 lakh) — in January helped the Congress activate its units, the Loka Kerala Sabha (LKS) organised by the state government at Dubai on 15 and 16 February helped the ruling front reach out to NRKs across the world.
Though most of the countries in West Asia do not permit political activity, all political parties in Kerala are active in major countries through their cultural wings. All the districts and even several constituencies in Kerala have separate forums in countries such as UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, which account for a majority of Keralites living abroad.
The UDF has the largest network in the Gulf. While the Congress is active through the Overseas Indian Cultural Congress (OICC), its number two ally — the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) – carries out political activity through the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC).
The LDF, which was lagging behind the UDF, expanded its footprint in the Gulf through various art forums and pro-active measures by the LDF government. Even its decision to establish the LKS itself is seen as part of a larger plan to make inroads into the NRI vote bank, which is dominated by the UDF.
The government’s decision to hold the second meet of the LKS in Dubai was aimed at weaning away the expats from the UDF. Several UDF leaders admit that the meet, which was intended to make NRKs part of the state’s development, helped the CPM shed its anti-development tag.
"NRKs have been backing UDF traditionally as they consider Left parties anti-development," said KP Rajendran, a member of the pro-Left art forum in Dubai. "Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan changed this image by promoting private investments in key sectors of the economy. This will pay dividend for the LDF in the Lok Sabha election." Rajendran added that the Art Lovers’ Forum would be campaigning for the LDF by holding group meetings and conventions across West Asia. He said senior CPM leaders were expected to address the meetings in the coming days.
Ahead of the 2016 Assembly polls, several candidates visited the Gulf countries. However, none of the Lok Sabha poll candidates are scheduled to visit the Gulf before the 2019 election. OICC general secretary N Subramaniam said representatives of the candidates and senior leaders from their constituencies will be visiting the major countries. The OICC has district units in all the major countries in West Asia.
The OICC has convened a meeting of all district units in UAE in the last week of March to chalk out the poll strategy. Similar meetings will also be held in Saudi Arabia, which hosts the second largest number of Keralites, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. Subramaniam said the attempt would be to bring all registered voters to the state on the polling day. He added that the Congress was expecting at least 50,000 registered voters to visit the state and exercise their franchise.
The OICC will consider chartering flights to bring back NRK voters. The KMCC chartered two flights during the last Assembly election. Subramaniam said the OICC will take a decision in this regard in consultation with KMCC. The candidates are eyeing not only NRK votes, but also of their family, who usually go by the preference of their breadwinners. Families 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 NRKs can influence comes to 40 lakh. This is a huge number that can definitely influence the poll outcome since the victory margin in some constituencies are thin. In 2014, the victory margin in three Lok Sabha constituencies was less than 10,000 votes. The margin was between 10,000 and 20,000 votes in three other constituencies and between 20,000 and 30,000 in two constituencies. Four of these seats went to the LDF, which won eight of 20 seats.
A large number of NRKs enrolled their names in the voters' list following the Election Commission’s decision to allow proxy voting. However, proxy voting is not possible this time as the required amendment has not been made to the Representation of the People Act so far. Though a bill to extend proxy voting rights to NRIs was passed in the Lok Sabha, it is still pending in the Rajya Sabha. The Bill will lapse following the dissolution of the Lok Sabha and the process would have to be started afresh, according to Election Commission officials.
This means all registered overseas voters will have to come to India and cast their votes in their respective constituencies. Nearly 94,000 overseas Indians of the total estimated 3.1 crore NRIs registered themselves online for voting after the portal was launched by the EC last year, according to a report in The Times of India. Another 35,000 applications are pending with the ECI. The maximum online registration of overseas voters was from Kerala, followed by Punjab, Gujarat and Maharashtra, as per the report.
Subramaniam said NRKs from Kerala were highly disappointed by the failure of the government to pass the legislation. The UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh granted voting rights to NRIs in 2010 following strong demand from Keralites in the Gulf countries. “We sought voting to make our voice heard in the legislatures. This will not be possible unless proxy voting is made possible. Under the current system only the rich can exercise their franchise. This is not fair,” said Abraham Thomas, who works in Abu Dhabi. He said it was the lower classes that require the attention of the political parties as they are most affected by the protectionist policies being adopted by most Gulf countries.
“What this section needs most is a rehabilitation package. The NRKs in the Gulf have been demanding this for several decades. Successive governments in state and at the Centre have ignored the demand. Unless we have the power of the vote, none will hear our voice,” said Thomas. He added it was time for political parties to think of giving representation to the NRIs in the legislatures. “Only this will solve our problems,” he added.
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Updated Date: Mar 12, 2019 19:39:47 IST