Punjab has just over 13,000 villages. More than 60 per cent of the state’s population lives in the villages and forms the backbone of the socio-political structure. Just like the other aspects of village life, rural politics of Punjab is also a league of its own. No other political structure — domestic or international — comes close to its peculiarity. Becoming the sarpanch of a village is an honour like none other for many, and for others it may be a stepping stone for bigger things.
Given the zeal with which the panchayat elections are fought, it is not uncommon for the candidates to make Herculean efforts to win the elections; sometimes even at the cost of their village’s social harmony.
There are more immigrants from such villages living in Europe and North America right now than during any other point in history. Some of them hold sway over elections in their respective villages, thanks to the formidable exchange ratios of their countries’ currencies against the rupee. In Canada, the median household income is around $70,000, which is roughly Rs 38 lakh. Although the amount is huge in INR, in Canada, $70,000 is barely enough for a family of four to get by for one year. There are households with annual incomes higher than this, and some of these are Punjabi. This does not mean every well-off Punjabi in Canada is investing fortunes in political battles back home, but there is a substantial number of those who are, and their reasons are diverse.
“When I was elected the sarpanch of my village, it was a big deal because the rival group had support from the UK and they spent a lot of money. They started celebrating even before the votes were counted. I won, of course, and their money couldn’t do anything,” says an immigrant in Montreal, who was elected the sarpanch of his village in Shahkot tehsil in Jalandhar district , some years ago. He is now a farm-hand but people still address him as ‘sarpanch saab’. It is said a villager’s bond with his village is more organic than a city dweller and the commitments are more extensive. Across bigger cities of North America, there are people who hail from same native villages and come together once every few months for community events.
In such an atmosphere, it is easy to forget that the elections are happening in a country they left long ago, a place where neither they nor their children are going to live. This, however, has not, and does not, stop people living in faraway lands such as Canada from participating in their village’s panchayat elections. “After college, my nephew could not find a job, so I told him to contest the elections... when we visit our village, people will know we are the sarpanch’s relatives,” said a gentleman from Toronto, who has lived in Canada for over 20 years.
Many people sponsor political parties back home simply because they want to be treated as VIPs when they visit India if the party they supported comes to power. One businessman from California once made a contribution of $5,000 (almost Rs 3 lakh) to a political party before the 2017 elections because he wanted security details when he would visit India.
These kinds of stories are common, and their number has only grown over time. Every political party has a foreign ‘wing’ to cater to the NRIs and collect ‘funds’ from them. There is also a class of NRIs who want to see the real change in their place of birth. They support whichever new political movement emerges from there and promises reform. Whether they have been successful yet is a moot subject.