Kerala parties take election campaign overseas

Diaspora in Mid-East and even S'pore seen as vote influencers

Voters showing their ink marked fingers after casting their votes during the Assembly election in Calcutta on April 21.
Voters showing their ink marked fingers after casting their votes during the Assembly election in Calcutta on April 21.PHOTO: EPA

In the southern Indian state of Kerala, campaigning for the legislative assembly elections is intensifying with political parties unfurling election campaigns that are reaching international shores.

Dozens of candidates from different parties have travelled to the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait to woo hundreds of thousands of expatriates who retain strong links back home.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also launched an aggressive campaign, tying up with smaller local parties. But the BJP, according to one opinion poll, could win just one seat in the 140-seat assembly in the May 16 elections. It won no seats in the last poll.

Kerala, a coastal state on India's western tip, is prosperous and is the only state in the country with 100 per cent literacy. It has about 2.5 million people working in the Gulf in areas such as construction, nursing and real estate.

Though only a small percentage of overseas Indians are expected to vote, they are still seen to wield influence over their families.

"Every former Pravasi (expatriate) is the key breadwinner in his family. They influence how their families vote," said Mr Abdurahiman Randathani, a legislator from the Indian Union Muslim League.

Mr Randathani, who hopes to retain the assembly seat of Tanur, travelled to the UAE and Qatar over the past two weeks.

About 5,000 of the 133,276 registered voters in his constituency, which is in the Muslim-dominated district of Malappuram, live in these two countries.

The Indian Union Muslim League is part of the United Democratic Front (UDF) that rules the state. Looking to boost its chances, more than 1,000 voters will be flown back for the elections, arranged through the UDF's cultural wing in the Gulf.

Kerala politics has been dominated by the UDF - a coalition led by the main opposition Congress - and its rival, Left Democratic Front (LDF), led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The two coalitions have alternated in power since the 1980s, never winning a second term in power.

In the last elections, UDF won 73 seats and the LDF 67 seats.

Opinion polls have given the edge to the Left-led alliance.

Political analysts said the trend of candidates travelling abroad was on the rise with each election.

"They are even staying for a week, going from country to country. This is just to influence people so that they will tell relatives back home to vote for such and such candidate," said Dr J. Prabhash, head of the political science department at Kerala University.

The LDF has promised returning expatriates jobs amid concerns about jobs being affected by the Gulf oil crisis, while the UDF has promised a health insurance scheme and a monthly pension of 1,000 rupees (S$20) for those who have to return due to illness .

Still, not everyone is impressed.

"They come here promising a lot but nothing ever happens. The NRI (non-resident Indian) is asking for rehabilitation and pension," said Mr K.V. Shamsudheen, chairman of the UAE-based Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust, who lives in Dubai. But he has already conveyed his choice of candidates to his family back home.

Though the Gulf remains the focus of most candidates, at least one is reaching out to people in Singapore too.

Mr K.V. Abdul Khader, an assemblyman for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) contesting from Guruvayoor, has friends rooting for him among the Kerala diaspora in Singapore and Malaysia.

"I have lots of people from my constituency working in Malaysia and Singapore. So I am reaching out to them also."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2016, with the headline 'Kerala parties take election campaign overseas'. Subscribe