x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Indian voters make historic poll journey

Indians living in the UAE are flying home to cast their ballots in the April 13 elections after their government allowed non-residents to vote for the first time.

DUBAI // Almost 170 Indian expatriates from the southern state of Kerala will board a chartered flight from the UAE tomorrow and embark on what they say will be a "historic journey" to cast their votes for the first time.

The voting expedition follows a decision last year to give voting rights to non-resident Indians (NRIs).

The Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC) - an affiliate of the United Democratic Front, an alliance of political parties in Kerala - has chartered a flight to Calicut to enable some members to vote in the assembly elections next Wednesday.

"It is an emotional moment for me," said Puthur Rehman, head of the KMCC in the Emirates, who will board the flight. "It is great that NRIs have been given the opportunity after six decades of being a democratic nation. It is our right to exercise our vote and I finally feel that I am part of my country.

"The excitement is akin to what I felt when I was awarded my university degree. When I saw my name on the online voters' list, I never thought I could exercise my vote in my lifetime."

Mr Rehman, who will vote for the first time in 30 years, said: "This is a significant step for the millions of overseas Indians."

Sainudheen Cheleri, a co-ordinator for the group, agreed. "This is a historic journey for us," he said. "We look forward to casting our ballot next week."

Members have each paid 75 per cent of the flight ticket price, and the organisation has made up the rest. "We have organised to pay the full price for some members who can't afford to pay," Mr Cheleri said.

The charter flight, booked exclusively for voters from the state, is the first of its kind to "encourage" people to take part in the elections. The number of special flights could increase in the coming years as more people register to vote. Tens of thousands have already arrived in the state, while many others are preparing to journey on their own as the election countdown begins.

The assembly elections next week will be a milestone in the state. Keralites comprise a large chunk of the 25 million Indians living overseas, and their votes could have a major impact on the poll results.

The politically active expatriates are an attractive electorate for political parties. Several state parties have affiliations with cultural organisations in the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf with membership exceeding tens of thousands.

Since the Indian government's decision to give voting rights to expatriates - a long-standing demand that was granted last August - organisations have been garnering support for candidates through "hi-tech campaigns".

"We have been reaching out to voters extensively through social networks like Facebook and Twitter, besides sending texts and e-mails to members, their friends and relatives. We mostly give details of candidates, their constituencies and explain voting procedures," Mr Cheleri said.

Information sessions include seminars at the organisation's head office in Deira, visits to labour camps, and meetings with workers in supermarkets and restaurants.

The organisation will set up a "free calling facility" for four days in the run-up to April 13 for expatriates who cannot vote to telephone families and influence "crucial polling decisions".

"The government here has given us a lot of freedom," said Mr Mummakkan Mohammed Ali, the media and publicity convenor of the Overseas Indian Cultural Congress, which is tied to the Kerala Pradesh Congress party.

"We ensure we follow the rules of the country. We are canvassing here only because the elections at home will affect the welfare of the NRI community and of our own lives when we return home after retirement," he said.