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Sunday, Sep 15, 2019

Enfranchise NRI voters to enhance India’s democracy

There is a simple and straightforward solution to solve this problem. It is to reform the election law and to let the NRI’s vote from where they are. They could cast either postal votes or vote online.

columns Updated: May 01, 2019 08:03 IST
Frank Islam
Frank Islam
Voters show their identity cards as they stand in queues to cast their votes during the second phase of the general elections at a polling station, Kandhamal district, Odisha,  April 18, 2019
Voters show their identity cards as they stand in queues to cast their votes during the second phase of the general elections at a polling station, Kandhamal district, Odisha, April 18, 2019(Arabinda Mahapatra / Hindustan Times)
         

By May 19, close to 600 million Indians will have cast their ballots in what will be the largest electoral process in human history. More than two-thirds of the 900 million eligible voters, living across the length and breadth of the country, are expected to vote in this election. The scope, size, and complexity of the election are a testimony to the quality of India’s democracy. Much time and effort has been expended to make the electoral process encompassing and inclusive. However, one group of voters will, again, have little say in determining who will lead the country in the next five years: non-resident Indians (NRIs).

There are more than 13 million NRIs. Of that number, fewer than 75,000 will vote in this election. That is less than 1%. The reason for the low NRI voter participation is that Indian election law requires a person to be physically present in his or her constituency on the polling day to vote. For India’s first 15 elections, only Indians residing in India were allowed to vote. The nation’s strict voting law prohibited anyone not physically present in the country from even registering to vote.

In 2010, the government changed the law to allow NRIs to register their names in the electoral rolls in the place listed on their passports as home and then to vote if they are present at the voting booth on the polling day. Despite its restrictive nature, it was a good first step to engage Indian citizens abroad in the electoral process. It is time to take the next step and to fully enfranchise NRIs. This can be accomplished by making it easier for NRIs to vote by eliminating the requirement that an NRI be at the local polling place on voting day in order to cast a vote. This requirement is extremely burdensome.

This is proven by the fact that India’s nearly decade-long experience with the NRI voting experiment shows that it is not working. This year, despite high-profile marketing efforts by Indian missions worldwide, fewer than 75,000 NRIs have registered to vote. A major factor contributing to this paltry voter registration is the logistical difficulties of travelling to the constituency to vote. If one is an Indian citizen living overseas, it would require a significant investment of financial resources and time to exercise one’s democratic right.

Making it even more difficult for overseas citizens is the long-drawn nature of the country’s election process. Unlike in the United States, which has a fixed polling calendar, India’s election dates vary considerably, and voters get to know the polling schedule just a few weeks before the election day. This year, the election schedule was not announced until March 10. The first phase of polling was on April 11. It is unreasonable to expect people employed abroad to make travel plans at such a short notice.

There is a simple and straightforward solution to solve this problem. It is to reform the election law and to let NRIs vote from where they are. They could cast either postal votes or vote online.

There was a legislative attempt, two years ago, to let overseas citizens vote through proxies. The Lok Sabha, dominated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, passed the “Representation of the People Amendment Bill 2017,” but it failed to clear the Rajya Sabha, the upper house.

Worldwide, many democracies allow their citizens to cast postal votes. In fact, India already has provisions for postal voting for government officials and members of its armed forces. The same should be extended to the overseas voters.

Another option would be to allow overseas citizens to vote online. The country has already adopted electronic voting in parliamentary elections. It wouldn’t require a significant technology upgrade to let overseas voters cast ballots online.

There are three primary reasons why the election law should be reformed.

First, it is the equitably correct. The fact that a citizen of India is residing in another country should not make him or her any less of a citizen. It should not take away the fundamental right to vote.

Second, it makes India a global beacon of hope for democracy and, in addition, it strengthens the Indian democracy. It does this by ensuring that all voices are heard. In this current national election, and the one preceding it, the Election Commission has taken numerous actions to ensure maximum voter participation. This would reinforce those initiatives.

Third, it recognises the size and economic contributions of NRIs. If NRIs were to form a country, they would be the 75th largest nation in the world, bigger in size than countries such as Portugal, Belgium, Sweden and Israel. It is hard to overstate the economic contributions of the Indian diaspora. According to the World Bank, the diaspora remittances to India last year touched $80 billion.

In conclusion, from the time of its founding, India has been a democracy that embraced and empowered a broad and diverse swath of voters living in India. Enfranchising NRIs builds on India’s enviable democratic history and extends its reach worldwide.

Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, civic leader, and thought leader based in Washington DC

The views expressed here are personal

First Published: May 01, 2019 00:48 IST