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Rewind: Leaving NRI voters behind

www.telanganatoday.com | April 16, 2024

In the 2019 elections, five people from the registered 5,090 NRI electors voted in Andhra Pradesh while none of the registered 1,436 electors voted in Telangana

India, the world’s largest electoral democracy, is gearing up for its 18th Lok Sabha elections, scheduled in seven phases from April 19 to June 1, 2024. As per the Election Commission (EC) records, 96.88 crore voters are exercising their right to suffrage in this election, of which 1.8 crore are first-timers. The massive preparation for 10.5 lakh polling booths, 2,100 election observers, 1.5 crore polling officers and 55 lakh electronic voting machines is well under way. Political parties are busy pitching their election promises, releasing manifestos and campaigning for candidates. Five years after the last general election in 2019, sociopolitical and economic conditions have significantly changed at the national and regional levels. Rows over electoral bonds, citizenship amendment rules, farmer protests, unemployment, corruption, Assembly election campaigns in Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha and Sikkim, and by-election campaigns for 26 Assembly seats of Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Telangana, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal among others are stirring up the election debates.

Sidelined Diaspora
Overseas Indians, physically away from the homeland, are largely sidelined from the election process on legal and technical grounds. Those who have taken up foreign citizenship are debarred from voting as the Constitution does not allow dual citizenship. Besides, they cannot contest elections or hold public posts and services in India. Despite this predicament, Indian diaspora communities deeply identify and connect with their native country. They religiously follow national and State politics, maintain strong political affiliations, fund political parties and their campaigns, and host Indian politicians when they visit foreign countries. 

About 1.34 crore NRIs live worldwide, and more than half of them should be eligible voters as per the Indian laws. However, only 1,18,439 NRIs have registered in the current electoral roll. 

At the same time, non-resident Indian citizens (NRIs) can vote in the elections as per Section 20A of the Representation of the People Act, 1950. This section was inserted in the Act by an amendment in 2010 that allowed Indian citizens living abroad to register and vote in Parliament and Assembly elections. Since NRIs are a notable demographic, the central government is urging them to cast their votes in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, while the candidates are reaching out to the NRI voters in person or via social media. Congress candidate from the Vadakara constituency of Kerala, Shafi Parambil, visited the United Arab Emirates recently to mobilise ‘the Gulf votes’. Likewise, international chapters of political parties and diaspora organizations, such as Overseas Friends of BJP and Indian Overseas Congress, leverage digital platforms to reach out to the voters in India through their foreign-residing relatives and friends. The tech-savvy overseas party volunteers create online content that resonates with the Indian community abroad, and they actively campaign via telephone and internet calls, WhatsApp group messages and propaganda posts on social media. 

Of the 99,844 registered NRI electors in 2019, only 25,606 voted in the last Lok Sabha election with 25,534 from just Kerala. NRI voter registration has been consistently the highest - above 90% - in Kerala since 2012. 

Some even plan their annual vacation visit to India around election months to partake in on-ground canvassing and voting, as seen during the 2023 Telangana Legislative Assembly polls. Many ardent Telugu NRIs from the Gulf countries, Singapore and the United States flew down to campaign in their native places for their preferred parties and candidates and cast their votes in the respective constituencies. As they enjoy considerable status in society, their involvement in online or direct campaigns influences the voting preference of their families, friends and wider community to some extent. Furthermore, elections and government formations in India are matters of particular interest for NRIs since India’s diplomatic engagements with countries where they reside categorically determine the dynamics of their relations with the host societies. The recent India-Canada diplomatic standoff affirms this. Yet, NRIs are at a disadvantage when it comes to their effective participation in democratic governance. 

Current Voting System 
The NRI voters must first register and include their name in the electoral roll of their respective constituencies by filling out Form 6A, downloaded from the Voters’ Service Portal of the EC. The duly completed form, along with a recent passport-size colour photograph, attested photocopies of the pages of the Indian passport containing the photo, name and residential address of the applicant, the valid visa endorsement and a declaration of not being enrolled as a general elector in India, needs to be submitted in person or sent by post to the Electoral Registration Officer (ERO) of the constituency. The booth-level officers will verify these details by visiting the residence address. If no one can provide a declaration for document verification at the home address, the documents will be sent to the Indian Mission concerned for verification. The ERO will communicate the application status by post and SMS on the registered address and phone number upon the completion of the registration process. After the registration, the enrolled NRI voter can check the ‘Overseas Electors’ section of the rolls of each polling station on the EC website and fill out Form 8 to correct any wrong entries in the electoral roll. They can then vote on the polling day by being physically present at the designated polling station in their constituency and producing their original passport as proof of identification instead of the Electors Photo Identity Card (EPIC). There is no remote or online voting facility available for them. About 1.34 crore NRIs live worldwide, and more than half of them should be eligible voters as per the Indian laws. This overseas voter base can be a pivotal force in influencing electoral outcomes and policy decisions, considering their numerical strength, soft power potential and financial clout — they remitted $125 billion in 2023. However, only 1,18,439 NRIs (less than 1%) have registered in the current electoral roll despite the EC’s efforts to boost voter registration and its campaign of ‘no voter to be left behind.’ 

Keeping Away 
The low NRI enrolment and voter turnout is due to the exhaustive bureaucratic registration requirements under current rules, travel cost and other logistical inconveniences of flying down to their constituencies to vote in person. Also, the declaration of the election schedule just over a month before the poll makes it difficult for the NRIs to apply for leave from work and plan the trip home. This was evident from the fact that of the 99,844 registered NRI electors in 2019, only 25,606 voted in the last Lok Sabha election. Notably, 25,534 NRIs who then voted were from a single Indian state—Kerala. The rest of the voters were from Punjab (33), Karnataka (16), Uttar Pradesh (6), Maharashtra (5), Rajasthan (5), Goa (1) and Chandigarh (1). Five people from the registered 5,090 NRI electors voted in Andhra Pradesh. In comparison, none of the registered 1,436 electors voted in Telangana in the 2019 elections. Also, the NRI voter registration has been consistently the highest (above 90%) in Kerala since 2012. Voting without having to present in person at the polling stations has been a long pending demand from NRIs worldwide. A Public Interest Writ Petition (Civil) No. 80/2013 was filed in this regard in the Supreme Court in 2013. As directed by the court, a 12-member committee was constituted by the EC, headed by the then Deputy Chief Election Commissioner, “to consider ways and means to facilitate voting for NRIs and migrant workers.” As per the recommendation of the committee, the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in December 2017 to allow proxy voting for NRIs. The Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha in August 2018 but lapsed in Rajya Sabha. 

In the 2019 elections, five people from the registered 5,090 NRI electors voted in Andhra Pradesh while none of the registered 1,436 electors voted in Telangana. 

Political parties across the spectrum raised practical issues associated with implementing proxy voting as it undermines the spirit of the secret ballot and the ‘one-person, one-vote’ principle. Proxy voting could cause vote trading by parties by providing proxies to NRIs to vote on their behalf - most likely the same proxy for multiple voters - or manipulating the proxies chosen by the NRI voters. Also, there is no guarantee that the proxy voter will vote as per the preference of the NRI, even if it’s their friend or family. In a similar vein, in November 2020, the EC notified the Law Ministry about its administrative and technical readiness to extend the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) to NRI voters, in line with the ETPBS for the government officials, diplomats and military personnel, but did not receive clearance from the Ministry. 

Blueprint for Future 
Elections are the cornerstone of democracy, and free, fair and inclusive elections are a requisite for strengthening the sovereignty and citizen-centric governance of the nation. After all, the right to vote is a constitutional right under Part XV, Article 325 and Article 326, and all Indian citizens above 18 are eligible to vote, including the NRIs. A possible disqualification on the grounds of non-residence, as mentioned in Article 326, is waived by the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act, 2010. However, the current rules require the physical presence of the NRIs at the respective polling booths where their names are enrolled, which is a major disincentive for them to register or vote in the elections. The low NRI voter turnout, in turn, will prompt the political parties to disregard their economic and social contributions to the country and exclude them and their issues, such as dual citizenship, wage theft and reintegration on return, from the party agendas and mainstream policy discourses. Implementing effective processes to enfranchise the NRIs is critical to empower them and make their demands heard. 

Remote Voting 
Remote voting will ensure free and inclusive political participation and endow NRIs with their constitutional right to vote. But it is not as straightforward as it may sound. Technology-based e-postal ballots or online voting are optimal for leveraging the advancements in digital infrastructure and stamping out any trust deficit or vote trading associated with proxy voting. However, they pose cybersecurity and privacy risks as well as limitations in verifying the identity of the voters and preventing bogus and multiple voting. If the software system is not robust, it could crash, compromising the functionality and reliability of the whole process. 

Voting at Indian Consulates 
Likewise, voting at Indian consulates has its advantages, but the humongous task of conducting elections will overburden the already understaffed and under-resourced missions. The question of jurisdiction and obtaining necessary sanctions from the host governments for conducting elections could also complicate diplomatic relations. Besides, overseas voting could lead to heightened ideological rifts and political actions among Indian communities abroad, prompting hostile debates on immigrant integration and identity politics. Besides, the national and regional parties with lesser financial and support bases will be at a disadvantage in campaigning abroad and consolidating their NRI base. This shortfall of a fair playing field for all political players will undermine the spirit of democracy. This baffling complexity of the matter, however, should not be an excuse to deny the NRIs the opportunity to participate in the key democratic process of choosing their representatives in future elections. Establishing a credible NRI voting mechanism should be one of the priorities of the next government. For that, each and every logistical issue and practical concern must be addressed, and rules regarding remote voting must be diligently and cautiously formulated based on accurate and disaggregated data on global NRIs. The finer details of its implementation must also be charted out, and the procedures need to be streamlined.

Current rules require the physical presence of NRIs at polling booths, which is a major disincentive for them to register or vote in the elections. 

Political will and commitment of all stakeholders - central and State governments, national EC and State ECs, relevant ministries and departments, and political parties - are imperative to ensure the inclusion of NRIs into the democratic fabric of the country without compromising the integrity of its electoral process. Along with this, the Indian government must consider means and measures to extend the provision of remote voting to inter-state migrants in India on similar lines.

Author: Prof. Divya Balan, Faculty of International Studies, FLAME University

(Source:- https://telanganatoday.com/rewind-leaving-nri-voters-behind )