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Eighty percent of them are Gulf residents who returned during the pandemic, says the state Chief Electoral Officer.

Silhouettes of travellers with background of Gulf buildings
news 2021 Kerala Assembly Election Tuesday, March 23, 2021 - 18:40

The 2021 Kerala Assembly Elections are crucial to the state’s Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the first election to the state Assembly post 2020, the year that saw 5.5 lakh people from the Gulf flying back to Kerala after losing their jobs. For these Gulf returnees, new jobs, housing, education for their children and a lot more depend on who is elected to power. Not surprisingly, over 90,000 NRI returnees have registered to vote in the state on April 6. “This is a historic number, the highest ever, compared to the figures before 2019,” Chief Electoral Officer Teeka Ram Meena tells TNM.

Meena says that for this year’s elections, 93,415 NRI returnees have been added to the electoral register. “Eighty per cent of them are those who returned from the Gulf,” he adds. This is unprecedented because even as recently as in 2019, only 23,000 NRI voters had registered for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in Kerala. 

However, Meena believes that the rise in voter registrations is also due to better e-registration services provided by the Election Commission of India (ECI), which allows Indian nationals to register to vote online while in their country of residence. 

A rise in the number of actual NRI votes is also expected this time due to the sheer number of Malayalis who are still in Kerala or have returned home for good. Nearly 5.4 lakh Non-Resident Keralites (NRKs) are currently living in the state, after returning home last year. Out of this, 3.5 lakh people had returned after losing their jobs in the Gulf countries, says K Varadarajan, Chairperson of Non-Resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA), a department of the government of Kerala to redress grievances of NRKs. NORKA has been offering one-time assistance of Rs 5,000 to each of these families. “We have so far assisted 1,75,000 NRI returnees,” Varadarajan adds. 

Realising the community’s quandary, both the major political fronts — the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the United Democratic Front (UDF) — have focused on NRI rehabilitation, job creation and other welfare initiatives for the returnees. NRI relief is among the primary focus of the LDF. As part of its welfare scheme, the LDF has promised to ensure that the Kerala Bank starts accepting NRI deposits. 

Kozhikode has highest number of NRI voters 

Among the newly registered NRI voters, Malabar districts — Kozhikode, Malappuram and Kannur — have recorded the maximum number of voters. 

“We have 36,000 new NRI voters from Kozhikode, 17,000 from Malappuram and 14,000 from Kannur in our electoral list this time. In other districts, the numbers are equally distributed, that is, 1,000 to 2,000 new NRI voters,” Teeka Ram Meena tells TNM.

According to the Manorama News-VMR pre-poll surveys, Kozhikode and Kannur are likely to see a clean sweep by the Left (nine out of 11 seats in Kannur). However, in Malappuram, the UDF is slated to see a big win, clinching 15 out of the 16 seats in the district. 

No ‘Vote Vandis’ this year 

Kerala has long had a tradition of political parties chartering flights for NRIs — locally termed ‘vote vandis’ (vote vehicle) — to return home to vote during the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. These chartered flights, arranged by wealthy Malayali individuals or organisations, mostly arrive from the Gulf countries abroad, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

The Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre or KMCC, an Islamic Cultural Organisation, charters private flights for Gulf Malayalis during the elections. The organisation is tied to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), and the voters flown in are typically IUML loyalists. However, this year, the pandemic and quarantine restrictions have put a hard stop to this practice.

“Those flying into Kerala will have to undergo mandatory quarantine for 14 days in the state and then another set of days on returning abroad. So, this year, no chartered flights have been arranged as people would lose 28 days to a month just to come down, vote and return,” says PMA Abdul Salam, IUML General Secretary, Kerala State Committee. 

Incidentally, chartering one flight would cost around Rs 35 lakh, keeping aside the cost of travel for each passenger, which would come to a minimum of Rs 5,000 as he or she has to take a COVID-19 test from the country of departure.

“Besides, the air bubble is still in place in most international sectors, which makes it difficult for private parties to charter flights,” says Kerala-based journalist Rejimon Kuttappan. Air bubbles are travel corridors between two countries that perceive each other to be safe with respect to COVID-19 and allow carriers of both countries to transport people without too many restrictions. 

“The flights that are scheduled are already part of an arrangement between both countries. It’s not impossible to charter flights, but it requires several approvals from the government. For example, currently, flights from India to Kuwait only carry Ministry of Health employees from India and/or their families,” an employee of the private airline Indigo tells TNM.

“These ‘vote vandis’ have never made much difference. Earlier, eight to 10 flights of 250 passengers each would bring back voters. But this adds up to a total of 2,500 voters, which is almost a negligible sum. It is mostly an ego-boosting practice for MLAs to ‘increase their previous vote count’,” Rejimon adds.

No decision on NRIs voting via postal ballots 

In December 2020, the Election Commission had submitted a proposal to the Law Ministry to allow NRIs to cast their votes from overseas using postal ballots. The proposal only requires an amendment in the Representation of People’s Act, 1960, and does not have to go through the Parliament. The ECI was ready to extend this right to NRIs for the 2021 State Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Assam and Puducherry. 

However, the Ministry of External Affairs has put the idea on hold, citing several logistical challenges in implementing the ‘mammoth exercise’, such as identification of voters, venues for voting etc. This means that NRIs not present in person in the country will not be able to cast their votes in this Assembly election. 

In six Gulf countries and Jordan and Lebanon, the NRI diaspora amounts to around 90 lakh Indians, many of whom hail from Kerala, adds Rejimon. The NRIs, who are unable to travel to Kerala due to the pandemic, are forced to give voting a miss this year too. 

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