MALAPPURAM (Kerala) - When Indian software developer Suhail Pattanmar returned from Singapore to his home town Pattambi in Kerala in December 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, he didn't expect to stay till the state goes to the polls next month.
Like him, at least 1.2 million Keralites working abroad have returned to the state in the past year. Job cuts have upturned many lives, but Mr Pattanmar counts himself lucky to still be employed by his Singapore-based fintech company.
The 31-year-old now works from the large home he helped build for his parents only last year.
"My three younger brothers and my four best friends were all in the Gulf (Middle East). All are back without jobs now, sitting at home. I'm at least working from home," he said.
Until the pandemic hit, over four million Keralites lived or worked abroad, the majority in the Middle East. It was estimated that one in five households had a person abroad. Foreign remittances funded more than 36 per cent of Kerala's gross domestic product.
Dr D. Irudaya Rajan, who leads Kerala's migration studies, said emigration had contributed more to poverty alleviation in Kerala than agrarian reforms, trade union activities or social welfare legislation.
"They have lifted their families out of poverty, built homes, and educated the next generation. Even as returnees, they're a politically and economically important group here."
Desperation for jobs is now at its peak among the returned workforce. As they wait in a state of limbo, they are also unexpectedly present to vote in the state elections on April 6. A communist-led Left Democratic Front rules Kerala now, and is challenged mainly by a Congress-led United Democratic Front.
"Returnees are bound to have an impact on election results, especially in some high-migration constituencies," said Dr Rajan.
Mr Isaac Pappootty, president of the Pravasi Malayalee Welfare Association, believed "the election would be a referendum on the state's response to returnees".
In the past year, the state offered financial assistance of 5,000 rupees (S$92) each to 122,000 returnees, barely a 10th of the total number. It subsidised interest on loans for 712 ventures started by former emigrants.
In Malappuram in north Kerala, where nearly every home had a family member working in a Gulf country, returnees said few of them have received these benefits. They said they would vote for the Indian Union Muslim League, an ally in the opposition Congress-led group, because they received timely aid from the League's charity arm, Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC), during unsettling times in Dubai, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait during the pandemic.
For example, the KMCC ran quarantine centres for Indians in Dubai, arranged chartered flights to evacuate Indians in addition to the Indian government's flights, and sponsored tickets through donations.
"We didn't do it only for Muslims or Kerala residents, and certainly not for votes," said Dubai KMCC vice-president Musthafa Vengara.
But their work has deepened loyalty in a Muslim-majority Malappuram that is already a stronghold for the Congress-led alliance.
Mr Majeed Cheroor, a cargo supervisor who returned from Saudi Arabia six months ago, said he would never forgive the government for blaming rising Covid-19 cases on returning emigrants. "The stigma was so bad that my own mother didn't hug me when I returned," he said.
Others like Mr Justin Samuel in Pathanamthitta, however, are happy with the existing government. He lost his job in a Chevrolet dealership in Dubai, but has already invested his gratuity in a frozen chicken franchise in his home town.
"When I was jobless, the communist government kept my family fed with ration kits. My elderly mother gets pension," he said.
To cut expenses, Mr Samuel had pulled his children out of their pricey private school. They now attend a "great government school" that charges no fees at all.
As for Mr Pattanmar, he has not decided who to vote for, but having contracted two local skilled developers for his Singapore company, he is optimistic about Kerala's future.
"A lot of qualified young men and women are back home now. Maybe it's time we used our talents to green our own backyard," he said.