Dubai: Despite several unfavourable situations, hundreds of Indian expats from the UAE have managed to cast their votes in state elections and proudly displayed their inked fingers on social media to show their participation in the democratic process back home.
Though assembly elections are happening in four states — Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam — and the Union Territory of Puducherry, the election fever is generally higher among Keralites in the UAE, who form the largest group of the more than 3.4 million Indian expatriates here.
Politically agile Keralites are traditionally known for flying home in thousands to cast their votes. However, their numbers have drastically diminished this time, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic-related travel hassles and safety concerns. Most of the people, who cast their ballots, are either active supporters of political parties in the state or are on vacation back home.
KMCC vote flights
COVID-19 did not hinder Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC), which has a history of chartering flights — known as “vote flights” — for its members to vote. The community organisation, which supports Indian Union Muslim League, a member of the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala assembly, sponsored tickets for around 500 people, said Dr Puthur Rahman, president of KMCC UAE National Committee.
“We fully sponsored the tickets of around half of them and the rest got subsidised tickets. We are not sending people to vote for UDF. There are people supporting the LDF (Left Democratic Front) as well. Our aim is to support those who want to exercise their voting right, but can’t do it due to lack of money for the travel,” he told Gulf News.
Thrill of voting
A strong supporter of the ruling LDF in Kerala, Dubai resident K.L. Gopi, said he was thrilled to vote in the assembly election on Tuesday after a gap of two decades.
“It has been a special feeling especially because it was very evident that people are going to bring the LDF government in power again. They have gauged the welfare activities of the Pinarayi Vijayan government which made radical changes in health care, education and infrastructure. When expat families were in dire straits during the pandemic, this government helped them with food kits and provided pension to the elderly.”
E.K. Salam of the Al Ain Malayali Samajam, who is also a member of the Loka Kerala Sabha (a global body of Keralites formed by the state government), said he went to Kerala with the sole aim of campaigning for the LDF.
“We are overwhelmed to see the pro-government support from the people. I am sure this government will create history in Kerala by repeating its term.”
Meanwhile, BJP-supporter Hari Kumar, a businessman from the UAE, said he flew home to ensure Kerala votes for change and lets BJP win a significant number of seats. “We are sure Prime Minister Modi and BJP have hugely influenced the vote bank in Kerala this time and we will see that result.”
Deepa Anil, whose family runs a foodstuff trading company in Dubai, is one of the few expat women who were actively involved in election campaigning back home.
A staunch leader of the Congress party, Deepa had even contested in the Kerala local body election in December, 2020 and gave a tough competition to her rival in Venjaramoodu district panchayat. “Though I couldn’t win, I am happy that I managed to drastically cut the majority votes of my opponent in the LDF stronghold. After that, I stayed back here to work for the assembly election,” Deepa told Gulf News over the phone.
She said her party giving her a seat showed the recognition given to expatriates. “That was possible because of the social service that I have been involved in the Gulf countries for more than 20 years as an Incas women’s wing member. Politically active Keralites are largely involved in social service in Gulf countries and they become active in political affairs mainly during the elections only,” she said.
Deepa expressed high hopes that the Congress-led UDF will come back to power in Kerala.
Opportunity on vacation
Dubai resident Kishor Babu, who was on vacation in Kerala following his daughter Varsha’s wedding in the UAE, said all family members except his wife, who was unwell, managed to vote this time because they were home.
“When we realised that our names are still in the voters’ list, we were happy to go and vote. We felt proud that we are representing the expats and giving them a voice in choosing our government. Unfortunately, my wife couldn’t make it because she had an eye infection.”
Sangeetha Sunil, who was back home to spend time with her children doing their higher education in Kerala, said she was happy to vote after 12 years. “The arrangements made were really good. There was no rush, maybe due to the COVID-19 restrictions. It was a peaceful democratic process.”
Overseas voting rights
Advocate Hashik Thayikandy, Overseas Indian Cultural Congress global secretary and a senior legal consultant in Dubai, said he terribly missed flying home for the election, which had been his habit for 22 years.
“I used to fly home for all state assembly and local body elections. It was only after COVID-19 hit that I didn’t go. Due to the pandemic several people have hesitated to travel. This has once again given room for actively raising our demand for expats’ voting rights from our place of residence. The governments and political parties are not seriously considering expats’ demand for overseas voting rights. They are only bothered about expats’ money.”
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Glued to news updates
Tens of thousands of expats, who couldn’t fly home for casting their votes were glued to television channels and social media for news updates on voting happening back home.
S.S. Meeran, a corporate office manager in Dubai, who hails from Tamil Nadu, said he had to call off his trip home because of concerns related to COVID-19.
“I had booked my ticket but finally cancelled it. Now I was only checking news updates about the election and also making calls to my folks back home to get updates from them. It is high time NRIs were given overseas voting rights. When everything is happening online and electronically in the wake of the pandemic, India should consider giving voting rights to its overseas citizens using the available technologies.”