Indian Gulf workers: The unlikely voters parties are wooing for elections

As the southern Indian state votes on April 26, thousands are flying back from the Gulf to cast their ballot. Could they shape the election?

Congress leader and candidate from Kerala’s Vadakara Lok Sabha constituency Shafi Parambil addresses an election campaign in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. (Photo/ KMCC Handout)
Congress leader and candidate from Kerala’s Vadakara Lok Sabha constituency Shafi Parambil addresses an election campaign in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates [Photo: KMCC Handout]

Thiruvananthapuram, India – The hum of conversation was replaced by a crescendo of high-pitched political slogans in the packed auditorium, as Shafi Parambil took to the stage.

The 41-year-old politician from the Indian National Congress launched into a blistering attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Kerala state Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. “Every vote counts and I need your wholehearted support,” he said as he concluded his speech.

It could have been a typical campaign event – ahead of April 26, when the southern Indian state of Kerala votes in the second of the country’s seven-phase national election – except it was not. Parambil was addressing supporters in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, 2,800km (1,739 miles) away from Vadakara, the parliamentary seat in Kerala he is contesting.

And he is not alone.

The Gulf region, which hosts more than 2 million immigrants from Kerala, is witnessing intense physical and virtual election campaigns, with contestants like Parambil vying for their votes and community groups launching initiatives to help expatriates fly back to India to cast their ballots.

The Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC) is the biggest Indian diaspora organisation in the Gulf, with more than 700,000 members. The group plans to fly back at least 10,000 of its members to Kerala by Friday.

“We have requested our members who had gone home for [the] Eid al-Fitr holidays to stay back ’til the election is over. Our campaign urging eligible voters to go home and participate in the election has evinced [a] huge response from our members. Now, we have bulk-booked flight tickets to ferry maximum people to Kerala,” The KMCC’s Dubai chapter secretary, Hassan Chalil, told Al Jazeera.

The KMCC is affiliated with the Indian Union Muslim League, a prominent political party in Kerala that is allied with the Congress – Parambil’s party – in the state and nationally. The Congress, which is the principal national opposition party, and also in opposition in Kerala, is one of the state’s two big political forces: the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), currently in power in Kerala, is the other.

The “vote flights”, as KMCC officials describe them, began last week. “Many of our members have landed in Kannur, Kozhikode, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram international airports so far. The last flight carrying voters will leave Dubai on April 25,” Chalil said.

The group’s units in Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have also booked flights to take voters from Kerala home. Some of these country-specific chapters are offering free tickets, while others are promising heavy discounts secured after negotiations with travel operators.

Muhammed Niyas, an electrician in Kuwait, reached Vadkara in one of the “vote flights” on April 20. “Having missed the last two elections, I am keen to vote this time as this election will define the future of India. I want my country to remain secular,” Niyas told Al Jazeera, referring to concerns over the Hindu supremacist agenda championed by Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Last weekend, Modi alluded to Muslims as “infiltrators” and “those who produce more children”, pandering to stereotypes that his own government’s data does not back up. Muslims constitute 27 percent of Kerala’s 35 million population, nearly twice the national average of 14 percent. Hindus form 55 percent of the state’s population and Christians are at 18 percent.

Abdul Jaleel, who took a flight out of Dubai on Sunday, said nearly all the passengers on his flight were from Kozhikode, his constituency.

“Everybody was excited to be a part of the election. Our aim was to ensure a huge win for our candidate,” said Jaleel. “I took one week leave from my work to be a part of the vote. I will go back to work the next day of the polling.”

An election convention organised by Kerala Art Lovers Association (Kala), Kuwait for the Left Democratic Front candidate from Kottayam Parliament seat Thomas Chazhikkadan. Photo: Handout/ Kala
An election campaign event organised by Kala Kuwait, a community group, for the Left Democratic Front candidate from Kottayam parliament seat Thomas Chazhikkadan, in Kuwait [Photo Handout/ Kala Kuwait]

Kerala an exception among diaspora

Unlike many other countries, India does not have voting at its overseas embassies. That means members of the diaspora need to travel back to India to cast their ballots.

Most do not do this. Of the 13.4 million Indian citizens who live abroad, only 118,439 – less than 1 percent – have registered to vote this year, according to India’s Election Commission. And only a fraction of them will likely actually vote. In the last national election in 2019, of the 99,844 expatriate voters, only 25,606 exercised took part.

Almost all of them were from Kerala.

Migrant rights activists say this is in part because of the nature of Kerala’s society, where a strong political culture means there are very few voters who are undecided or indifferent to elections. But it is also the outcome of a concerted vote-gathering effort by a range of diaspora groups affiliated with different Indian political parties, who help vulnerable Kerala migrants when they need assistance.

When uninsured migrant workers need medical care, these community groups often step forward to bear expenses. They help workers settle labour disputes. Each of these organisations also has a wing dedicated to helping repatriate the bodies of migrants who die in the Gulf.

The Congress Party does it through entities such as the Overseas Indian Congress and the Indian Culture and Arts Society. Similarly, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leverages its influence through a network of organisations, including Navodaya, Kairali, Keli, Kala, Dala, Sanskruti and Prathibha. These organisations too encourage their members to fly home to vote.

All 20 candidates representing the LDF participated in an online election convention held with voters in Kuwait during the second week of April. “The convention drew over 3,000 expatriates from Kerala,” said T V Hikmat, a leader of the cultural organisation Kala Kuwait.

Oman-based migrant rights activist P M Jabir told Al Jazeera the Kerala diaspora groups “provide immigrants the platform to discuss politics and participate in [the] democratic election process”.

“The outfits also encourage the expatriates to register as voters,” he said.

Parakkal Abdulla, a former member of Kerala’s legislative assembly who now owns businesses in Qatar, thinks the expatriates from the state are “worried about the future of the country and hence are rushing home to vote”.

“Many Keralites in the Gulf countries believe [India] has turned into an autocracy under Prime Minister Modi and they want to thwart his government,” Abdulla told Al Jazeera. Abdulla is currently in Kerala helping Parambil’s campaign.

But the motivations for the expat voters are not always purely political. For many, the election is a chance to reunite with old friends – a connection they sacrificed when they left home.

Since his arrival in Kerala earlier this month, Bhaskaran, an electrician who works in Qatar, has been campaigning for M V Balakrishnan, the communist candidate from the Kasaragod constituency. Bhaskaran says he used to be active in local politics before he left for the Gulf in 2016.

“I am here on a one-month vacation. This is a great opportunity to renew your lost friendships and meet younger people. The interactions give you a renewed energy,” he told Al Jazeera.

A packed auditorium listens to Congress candidate Shafi Parambil in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, as he campaigns for elections in Kerala, India [Photo: KMCC handout]
A packed auditorium listens to Congress candidate Shafi Parambil in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, as he campaigns for elections in Kerala, India [Photo: KMCC handout]

NRIs ‘being denied’ constitutional rights

Those who are not able to take the “vote flights” do not sit idle in the Gulf either.

Farooq Hamadani, the vice president of KMCC’s Kuwait chapter, said members of his organisation who are not going home to vote are canvassing for their candidates using technology and social media. “Our members will call their friends and family members regularly to ensure votes for our party’s candidates. We also have a social media cell to push content that is relevant to Kerala,” he said.

Diaspora organisations also help finance poll campaigns in Kerala. In the Nadapuram village of Vadakara, expatriate-funded hoardings feature Parambil, the Congress candidate, and K K Shylaja, his communist opponent.

Migrant researchers say the practice of expats – whether individuals or community groups representing them – spending huge amounts of money to use their voting rights does not augur well for the world’s largest democracy. In effect, said Irudaya Rajan, an expert on migration and chair of the Thiruvananthapuram-based International Institute of Migration and Development (IIMAD), this discriminates against those who cannot travel to India during election time.

“This is tantamount to denying the constitutional rights of a huge majority,” said Rajan.

The best way to tackle the issue, according to experts, is to implement a remote voting mechanism. In 2017, the Indian government, following a recommendation from the Election Commission, introduced a bill in parliament to allow Indian nationals abroad to appoint proxies to vote for them. Though the bill was passed in the lower house the next year, it lapsed in Rajya Sabha, the upper house.

“India depends heavily on expatriate contributions. Then why are the governments hesitant to involve them in the electoral processes?” Rajan asked.

India received $125bn in remittances from expatriates – the most that any nation received – in 2023.

“It should set up a foolproof system where they can vote from their host countries. It is the only way to give them their due,” Rajan said.

Source: Al Jazeera