The relevance of NRIs' mandate
Rapti Ray & Buddhadeb Ghosh expatiate the inclusion of NRI voters in the upcoming elections which may prove decisive in the overall result
The unfurling of the Indian National Flag brings tears to their eyes. The National Anthem inspires them more than any other song. They invest their hard-earned money for the economic upliftment of India. Yet, they do not have any say in the making of Indian democracy even if in many cases it is ruled by private limited family trusts. They are the non-resident Indians and people of Indian origin pushed out of their motherland, but not because of any ethnic clash or partition. They went abroad just to their skills and intelligence to use and struggled to establish in different fields abroad – thousands of miles away. As we are at the verge of the next Lok Sabha polls, the question that looms large is this: why will their voting right be still ignored, especially in this age of digital communication and at a time when a nationalistic team must lead the country? Recent election results have proved the hypothesis that only marginal contributions can make havoc in the national scenario.
The importance of the issue is based on sheer numbers, not just emotions. According to the MEA's December 2016 figures, there are about 31 million overseas Indians, including Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) from across 208 countries. With 543 Lok Sabha constituencies, it, therefore, comes to an average of 57,000 votes per constituency. These votes, if see the daylight, are sure to make an impact on the poll results. The reason is that they constitute mainly the bright layer of our society and thus will be the most rational voters, guided by future upliftment of their motherland and not by short-run personal benefits. Hopefully, they are more or less evenly spread across India except for some regions. The poor people, who constitute a majority of resident Indian voters, are guided either by bread and butter, or private gain. So, they fall easy prey to the empty promises given by various political parties. If the opinion of NRIs is ignored simply because they are not residents then that will only lead to distorted election results.
The move towards amending electoral laws to bring overseas India under the fold of the voting process has already started. On August 9, 2018, the Lok Sabha passed 'The Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, 2018'. The Bill grants NRIs the right to vote through a proxy. This, however, has raised a question regarding the maintenance of secrecy of the voting process. The allegation of many political experts is that proxy vote goes against the very concept of a secret ballot because here a voter has to disclose his/her preference to another person, who in turn has to vote on his/her behalf. Many diplomats fear that there is no guarantee that a proxy will vote according to the choice indicated by the NRI thereby vitiating the very objective of free and fair elections.
Should that be the reason for denying the NRIs their right to vote? There are several other alternatives: a) Direct voting facilities in diplomatic missions, b) Voting through the internet, c) Voting through postal ballot paper or e-postal ballot.
The NRIs have left India for education, employment or other reasons. But they must be given the right to vote as they will then have a role to select the party that could frame the future Government whose policies will definitely affect them and their near and dear ones. In order to strengthen our democratic institution, the nation cannot ignore them. There is a tendency to dump NRIs as they are treated as a cause of brain drain. But that is actually a misconception. Most often, they are sources of brain gain to our nation as they enhance their skill, thereby benefiting the nation in many respects. Just to mention a few, they are an important source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in India. As Foreign Institutional Investors too, they help in strengthening the Indian stock market. In the field of research, their contribution is immense. Moreover, NRIs are contributing to our foreign exchange reserves in the form of remittances. Above all, many of these mobile Indians have been leading some of the greatest companies in the world in the USA, thereby, substantially broadening the image of India in the eyes of most countries.
In the Representation of the People's Act of 1950, there was no provision for NRIs to vote until the year 2010. The amendment allows an NRI, who does not have citizenship in any other country where she/he resides, to enrol for Voter's ID once they have attained the age of 18 years. The purpose of residing in another country can be education, business, employment, family and so on. The only stipulation is that one should not be a citizen of that country.
One needs to meet the following requirements in order to be eligible for an NRI Voter ID Card: 1. One should not be a citizen in the country one resides; 2. One should be at least 18 years old; 3. One needs a photograph; 4. One needs a valid Indian passport; 5. The passport page containing the identity and address details needs to be attested by a competent officer of the Indian Mission in the country of residence; 6. The name enrolled in the constituency will be as mentioned in one's passport.
The procedure is quite simple to apply for an NRI Voter ID. To apply online, one must follow these simple steps: One must visit the ECI website, and go to state election commission of India division by choosing your state or union territory; select Form 6A and download it; print the form and fill it in; fill in your details as mentioned in your documents and passport; the passport needs to be attested by a competent officer of the Indian Mission in the country in which you are currently residing; scan the filled form, along with a copy of attested passport and other documents. If online registration is supported for the area, then one can create a login ID with a password. One will be able to fill up the form, upload scanned documents and make the application online itself. If one does not have this option, one can send these soft copies to the email of the State Election website.
To apply for NRI Voter ID offline, one needs to visit an ERO in India, fill out the form, submit your documents and make the application. In this digital era, distance from your motherland should not be an obstacle to vote. In the near future, if all hindrances are removed, the winner would be real democracy in India thereby replacing dynastic Political Companies which are rampant in today's India. So the current Central Government should initiate extremely urgent steps to mobilise our gems residing across the world.
(Rapti Ray is Senior Journalist and Dr Buddhadeb Ghosh is Associate Scientist, Economic Research Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. The views expressed are strictly personal)