NRIs Voting From Abroad: A Step Towards Better Democracy

The Union government recently informed the Supreme Court that it had accepted Election Commission’s recommendation to allow NRIs to vote through e-ballot system or through proxy voting. The Election Commission discarded other possibilities of postal ballot and internet voting – terming them fraught with the danger of manipulation.

This decision also, historically, removes an “unreasonable restriction” posed by Section 20(A) of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act of 2010, requiring overseas electors to be physically present in their constituencies to cast their votes.

Before we consider different aspects of this development we should have a basic knowledge of different voting methods possible for NRIs.

  • E-Ballot: In this system Ballot will reach voters electronically and voters can send it back by post with their choice of candidate marked. According to the EC, the e-postal ballot system has almost no risk of manipulation, rigging or violation of secrecy.
  • Proxy Voting: It is the facility of voting through an appointed person — ordinarily from the same constituency as the voter. According to EC the “proxy voting facility would be a convenient, efficacious and doable method of providing voting facility to overseas electors”.
  • Postal Ballot: Ballots are send and received through post. This system has an obvious problem of rigging or manipulation of vote.
  • Internet Voting: Internet voting is the easiest option available for voters abroad, but has a high risk of rigging and hacking.
  • Personal Voting: In this system voters can cast their vote at diplomatic missions abroad.

Problems in proposed system: Even though discussion on providing proxy voting for NRIs is on for long time, proxy voting is going to be a reality in 2015-16. The major reason behind this delay are:

  • It can never be guaranteed that the proxy voter will vote as per the wishes of the actual voter. It suffers from an inherent problem of “trust deficiency”.
  • This system also violates the principle of “secrecy of voting.

On the issue of “trust”, the EC said, “It is expected that a person will appoint a proxy only when there is trust in the proxy.

Should NRIs be allowed to vote from foreign land?

India’s move towards enabling voting from overseas is an instance of a larger global trend towards increased citizen participation. The fact that 114 countries have accepted external voting makes it all the more incumbent on India, a model democracy in many ways, to enable a larger and more inclusive electorate.

The traditional argument against such external voting has been that only citizens who are present in the territory and affected by the consequences of their vote should be entitled to vote. As per this argument, since NRIs lacked sound knowledge about domestic conditions, they would be irresponsible in their electoral choices.

Excluding persons of Indian origin and Overseas Citizens of India on the premise that they have been away from India for too long, and that many of them are anyway citizens of other countries, is an acceptable argument, but in case of NRIs this argument is fast being disproved by empirical evidence. With the rapid increase in cross-border migrations, the concept of nationhood and political membership is increasingly being decoupled from territorial locations.

Changes in Politics of India:

The government’s decision to allow NRIs to vote from abroad could set the stage for expatriates to emerge as a decisive force in the country’s electoral politics. The voting right for Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) will immediately change their status from political funders to political influencers. Being away from India NRIs can see the country from a different perspective which might help them to analyse the right candidates suitable for good governance.

There are 10 million Indian citizens staying abroad, and with 543 Lok Sabha constituencies, this means an astonishing average of about 18,000 votes per constituency may get polled from abroad. These additional votes, if polled, will obviously play a crucial role in state and general elections. Still the argument given by many that the demographics of some constituencies could change is exaggerated. As long as the election process is not vitiated by malpractice or manipulation, there is no reason for politicians or the election system to fear the NRI vote.

Many government decisions in India are generally influenced by vote bank considerations. Issues such as service tax on NRI remittance fee and tax on NRIs income etc. will be seriously considered now. Now NRI issues will appear in election manifestos. Kerala is the state likely to have the most voters in this segment, which means its politicians would have to put in a little more effort.

A Thought for Future:

A larger question does remain on how a very large migrant population, can be similarly enabled to vote. Of course, by the Representation of the People Act, any eligible Indian can vote in the constituency in which s/he is resident. The overriding logic should be that our system has worked well by and large and any tinkering would only be to make it even more inclusive.

In a connected world, it is simpler to effect these changes in law to ensure everyone can vote. It does, however, stand to reason that since the sheer numbers of India are in some ways self-defeating, much work also needs to be done even to ensure the name of every eligible voter is actually on the rolls.

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