For this election, an estimated 10 million Indians living abroad will not be casting their votes. Even though non-resident Indians (NRIs) were made eligible to register for voting in 2010 by an amendment of the Representation of the People Act, they are still required to be physically present in their constituencies to be able to vote. The Supreme Court, hearing a petition filed by a doctor living in the UAE last week, asked the Election Commission to explore options to provide distance voting for NRIs. But with elections already under way, despite the court's bona fide intentions, it's too late to create this provision.
Public opinion in India however, still remains largely indifferent, if not hostile, to the question of the NRI vote. There are some common widespread assumptions: those living abroad made an "anti-India" choice when they left, they are "disconnected" with the country's reality and are "having it easy" so they don't need to stick a finger in the India pie. This is a dehumanised approach that turns the NRI into the "selfish Indian abroad". Mercifully, the law now guarantees all Indian citizens the fundamental political right to vote, irrespective of where they live. India has a 25 million strong diaspora, spread over 110 countries. It can only make sense to encourage them to be more involved with India by making the voting process easier.
"NRIs don't pay taxes in India, why should anyone fret about their vote?" This standard argument has been shelled out so often that many NRIs have also internalised it. There are plenty who do pay taxes in India but still don't get to vote from where they live. Besides, the idea of a nation cannot be reduced to that of an economic entity. Those who do not directly add to the kitty cannot be relegated to being lesser citizens and therefore without a vote. By this absurd logic, someone who pays higher taxes would be considered a greater citizen, more equal than most. Should they then cast multiple votes? And since only 3% of Indians pay any income tax at all, should they be the only ones voting? Clearly not.
If it's only cash that counts (it shouldn't though), there's enough reason to take the NRI vote seriously. India happens to be the largest recipient of remittances from diaspora in the world, receiving a whopping $69 billion in 2012 according to the World Bank. Kerala alone gets around $10 billion of remittances, which is almost 22% of the state's GDP. NRI bank deposits were $70 billion for 2012-2013, according to the Reserve Bank of India data.
The argument that NRIs are clueless about what's going on in India, doesn't hold water either. Indians who make claims to voting rights are pretty well informed of what's going on back home. If some NRIs show lack of interest in local politics, so do many Indians living in India. "The main justification for disenfranchisement rules - that citizens living abroad no longer have sufficient links with their home country - seems outdated in today's interconnected world", the European Commission rightly said, earlier this year, in defence of the voting rights of European Union citizens abroad.
Facilitating valuable exchange between their country of birth and their country of residence ought to qualify as enough "stake" for someone to be a legitimate voter. Not only does a vote give a person a say in determining who the lawmakers will be, it also encourages citizens living abroad to engage more with their home country. That said, a citizen's "worth", including that of an Indian abroad, shouldn't be assessed only on the basis of the contributions s/he makes towards nation building. "Migrants, in spite of their many positive contributions to the development of countries of origin and destination, should be seen not solely as agents of development but human beings with rights which States…have an obligation to protect" says a 2010 UNFPA report.
"Why don't they vote where they live?", ask some. As immigrants, most non-resident foreigners are not allowed to vote in their countries of residence. Almost everywhere, public opinion is against this idea. India is where NRIs count as citizens and where they feel they "belong". Stripping migrants of this sense of belonging is absurd in a world where more people are living abroad than ever before. In 2013, 232 million people, or 3.2 per cent of the world's population were international migrants, compared with 154 million in 1990 (UN figures).
"NRIs help separatists". Heard that one too. That's just wholesale branding of NRIs as rogues and shouldn't even count as a rational argument. Nor is the right to vote doled out on the basis of political leanings, degrees of patriotism or level of altruism etc but squrely on the basis of citizenship. Indian citizenship is acquired by birth, descent, registration and naturalization. And citizenship must guarantee people a right to vote.
Indians proudly celebrate the 'richest' and 'most powerful' citizens abroad but that's not where the love for compatriots should end. There are countries that take a far more inclusive approach. 115 democracies in the world allow their citizens abroad to participate in elections from where they live. France even has 11 constituencies abroad, from where citizens can cast votes to have their own representatives in Parliament. Non-resident Europeans of 17 countries also get to vote in diplomatic missions. Postal, proxy or Internet voting are other possible options.
By allowing NRIs to register as voters, India has already made it clear that it won't leave them out in the cold as citizens without votes. Adapting electoral laws to allow NRIs to vote from abroad should be a major priority, at least for the next Lok Sabha elections.
(Noopur Tiwari is a Paris-based journalist. The views expressed in this article are personal.)