It sounds like a simple question but this issue has been debated over the last 60 years. In 1950, the Representation of People Act was passed under the Constitution of India. According to it, every person who is a citizen of India and not less than legal age of voting on the qualifying date and is ordinarily resident in a constituency shall be entitled to be registered in the electoral rolls for that constituency.
The term ‘ordinarily resident’ excluded people with Indian citizenship who have migrated to some other country , a person of Indian origin who is born outside India or a person of Indian origin who resides outside India or in simpler words — the NRIs.
The NRI stamp
Today, the number of Non-Resident Indians spread out across the globe stand at no less than 25 million. In the year 2009 alone India has received 50 billion dollars from the NRIs in the form of remittances. Their money has been pumped back into the country and used for improving the social and physical infrastructure. By working abroad but investing in India, their funds have been hugely beneficial. When the NRIs have been so favorable towards our development, the question of voting rights is a major loophole.
According to the Prime Minister,Manmohan Singh, the demand for equal rights to vote made by the NRIs is quite legitimate. Why so?
The NRIs are citizens of India so they feel the urge for an equal say in deciding who the future leaders of the country will be. It is believed that by allowing the NRIs to vote they will become more involved in the nation-building process and the opportunities that India holds for them. Around the world, many countries allow their citizens to vote from abroad. The Representation of the People (Amendment) bill of 2006 which if passed will add the names of all NRIs to the electoral votes. By this, if NRIs are in their respective constituencies at the time of election then they can exercise their legal right to vote.
However, this amendment is not going to make much of a difference. According to it, the NRI citizens have to be physically present at his/her constituency at the time of elections. The other option which could be brought in is the concept of absentee ballot. ‘Absentee ballot’ is a vote which is cast by someone who cannot vote in person at the polling station. This kind of a ballot can be cast by electronic means, postal mail or proxy voting.
In the 2009 elections, it is estimated that around 714 million Indian names were registered to vote in the electoral rolls. More than 828,000 polling booths were set up across the country. If the system of absentee voting is to be brought in place, our technology has to be upgraded a few notches and for that we need more time. India is not new to corruption. Before the EVMs arrived, fraud used to take place in myriad ways. Today even after technological advancement, our politicians have found ways to rig the EVMs and win elections in landslides. At a fragile situation like this, bringing in the NRI votes without their necessitating their physical appearance will be seized as an opportunity by these fraudsters.
The Anti —Act sentiment
Firstly, the NRIs aren’t in the country for a majority of the year. Undoubtedly, their level of comprehension about the political proceedings within the country will be negligible in comparison to the local residents. They would have a lesser understanding of the problems faced by the people of that constituency. They would only add to the complexity by voting for the wrong candidate. If you think this is bold, the contemplation of allowing NRIs to contest elections takes the icing on the cake.
Now, when our own desi-politicians find it hard to understand, help and reach the people; introducing the NRI angle is going to bring in a whole new dimension.
Worse comes to worse, the NRIs always have the option of coming back to India and settling down .By default, they immediately regain their right to vote.
Rather than attempt innovative ideas and bring in the NRI vote bank today, the Government could do something about the flaws that the Indian election system already faces. Thousands of people in cities across India who have voter ID cards find their names missing from the electoral rolls during elections. They are not allowed to vote.
Also, along with the NRIs even citizens who migrate within the country and do not reside in their local residence for a period of six months find their names deleted from the electoral rolls. Our Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla, found his name missing from the voters’ list in the 2009 elections. When so many of our local residents themselves find it difficult to cast their vote, the idea of NRIs itching for a say in our democracy seems all the more amusing.
The writer is a Chennai based correspondent at Youth Ki Awaaz.