Southern sardars think national, but vote local

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KOCHI/CHENNAI: If you didn't know Bunty Singh is a Punjabi who's lived his life in Kochi, you could fall off your chair hearing him speak Malayalam. In the automobile business, they know him as Mallu Singh. "Customers who hear my Malayalam suspect I'm a Malayali who wears a beard and a turban for fun,'' says the 35-year-old whose family migrated from Punjab to Kochi in 1970.

Kerala has about 50 Sikh families, which makes them a bit of a cultural oddity. But thanks to the Malayalam blockbuster Punjabi House, set in a north Indian household , they now occupy mainstream mind space.

Linguistic minorities in Kerala and TN, though a small subset in the overall universe of voters, are indicative of the mix that politicians must tap. In both Kerala and TN, Punjabis, Gujaratis, Bengalis and Sindhis look at polls as an opportunity to negotiate with candidates for local development . Generally, they keep off local politics, unless an issue that relates to them crops up.

"We want better infrastructure in the city. National issues get less priority,'' says Sunil Lalwani, leader of the Sindhi community, about 50 of them live in Kochi. H S Ananth, secretary of Chennai's T Nagar gurdwara says: "Most of us decide on the basis of the candidate more than the party."

North Indians have been migrating south since the 19th century when the Madras Presidency was a centre of trade. Chennai's Rajasthani community traces its origins nearly 100 years back.

"Generally they vote for the national parties. But those who've been here for more than 25 years vote for state parties," Rajasthan Youth Association convener Sanjay Bhansali says. The mood this time favours the local BJP-led regional front.

Kerala's Gujaratis — 780 families in Kochi, 275 in Kozhikode and less than 10 in Thiruvananthapuram — don't like to discuss political affiliations . "We maintain close contact with Malayalis, but refrain from political commitments unless the issue hits us directly, like taxation. Our priority is business,'' says Chetan D Shah, secretary of Sri Kochi Gujarati Mahajan.

Still, they praise Kerala for its law enforcement record and disciplined citizenry. "If you lose a mobile or a purse here, you can hope to get it back, which may not be the case in north India,'' Sunil says.