New Delhi: In a first, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the predominantly Dalit party that is led by former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, is reaching out to non-resident Indians (NRIs) in Europe and North America to try and expand its reach, ahead of the Punjab assembly elections, due next year.
On 29 May, the party’s state unit chief Avtar Singh Karimpuri visited Vienna to pay tribute to Sant Ramanand, former deputy leader of Dera Sach Khand Ballan, Jalandhar. BSP was the only party to attend the event which saw devotees come from Italy, England, Portugal and Germany among other countries across Europe.
“We plan to get 25,000 NRIs on board within a period of three months to help us campaign for the election. We told them that we will work on problems like drugs and unemployment among youth and rising farmer suicides because of which they had to leave Punjab in the first place. We appealed to them to help BSP come to power in 2017 so they can return to their country," said Karimpuri.
To be sure, the BSP is not the first political party to elicit support among NRIs ahead of elections in Punjab—both the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Congress have done so in the past. It is, however, a first the BSP.
Dera Sach Khand Ballan is the largest settlement of the Ravidassia community—a dominant Dalit community in Punjab’s Doaba region. The dera, a traditional BSP stronghold, becomes politically important due to the large number of number of followers.
According to Census 2011, Dalits constitute 32% of Punjab’s population.
Karimpuri said that it was “moral and not financial" support that BSP is seeking from NRIs.
“A sizeable population of Punjab lives abroad and these people can influence their families and friends back home. We expect them to come back a few months before elections and devote their time to our Ghar Ghar Chalo (let’s go to every house) campaign," explained Karimpuri.
The campaign was launched in May this year and seeks to cover over 29 million people across the state.
The influence of NRIs in the Punjab assembly elections can be gauged from the fact that parties like the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and SAD all have tried to woo this community in the past.
AAP, for instance, launched a campaign in September 2015 in Punjab to raise funds from NRIs. The one-year long campaign, Chalo India, will let NRIs adopt constituencies and enable them to donate directly to a constituency.
The party is tapping its centres in Houston, Washington DC etc. for this purpose, according to Deepak Bajpai, an AAP spokesperson.
Chalo India also has centres in the US, New Zealand, Australia and Canada and the party has also set up a telephone number to allow interested individuals to join the party.
Interestingly, Congress state president and former Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh was recently denied permission to campaign for the Punjab elections in Canada and meet NRIs settled in the country.
Ahead of the 2017 elections, the ruling SAD-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance is facing a 10-year anti-incumbency, which leaves Congress and AAP as the BSP’s two major rivals. Both already have a support base among NRIs, unlike the BSP which has taken its campaign abroad for the first time.
The BSP is looking at reviving its lost fortunes in these assembly elections, especially due to this election’s proximity to the Uttar Pradesh elections, where the BSP is a major contender.
In Punjab, the party will contest all 117 seats, even though it drew a blank in both the 2007 and 2012 elections where it had contested 115 and 117 seats respectively.
In addition, the party failed to win a single seat in the 2014 general elections.
Analysts say that this move comes after the shifting of Dalit support to AAP and is not likely to bring the expected results for the BSP.
“NRIs are seen as achievers and successful people in Punjab. Not only do they dominate social media, they also come back to their villages and get hospitals and gurudwaras built which makes them influential. However, NRIs do not really support the Akalis (SAD) and have been upset with the Congress since Operation Blue Star (in 1984). In this scenario, AAP has managed to get support and funding from NRIs, leaving very little scope for the BSP to make inroads into this constituency," said Ashutosh Kumar, who teaches political science at Panjab University in Chandigarh.