There are two kinds of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) — those still holding Indian passports, thus retaining Indian citizenship, and those who have acquired the citizenship of countries other than India by surrendering Indian citizenship. In all fairness, the former should not be denied their Indian voting rights provided they have attained the age of 18, the voting age for resident Indians. This category is allowed to vote, but the regime obtaining for them makes their franchise a non-starter because of the insistence on their presence in the voting booth in India on the day of polls and presenting their passports to the electoral officer in charge of the booth who would look for their names in the list compiled by the Election Commission (EC) after they have successfully enrolled themselves as voters by filing form 6A. A voter ID is not issued to them.
This is unrealistic as hardly anyone is likely to fly with his family all the way from Silicon Valley, California, USA, to India just to cast his vote and enable his family members to do likewise unless the elections coincide with a family get together. Dubai, of course, is a slightly different proposition though once again the trouble and cost of travel would be a deterrent though not on a scale faced by the putative Californian Indian on hand.
In this day and age, the extant regime appears distinctly antediluvian. Why should an NRI aged 58 and his family of six, all aged 18 and above and holding Indian passports, be required to make a pilgrimage to India each time they become entitled to vote in India, be it in the Lok Sabha elections, Assembly elections or municipal elections. The extant regime is so disenchanting and disgusting that there were hardly 24,000 NRI Indian citizens who had enrolled themselves by submitting form 6A successfully as of 2017. The available data doesn’t seem to be terribly dated as the Thames hasn’t been set on fire since. Be that as it may, this pales into insignificance in the light of the fact that the Indian diaspora is 32 million strong, of which intuitively at least 50 per cent should be adults. The EC campaign to bolster NRI voting hasn’t borne fruit despite the option to file form 6A online.
To make the regime meaningful, proxy voting was considered a few years ago but this seems to have been given up. In company meetings, proxies whether members of the company or not, are allowed to vote for and on behalf of the registered members so much so that when stakes are high, often a single proxy exercises the voting rights of thousands of members who vote vicariously through such a proxy. Indeed, members are wooed with cash by moneybags for signing on the dotted lines of proxy forms when the stakes are high. It is nobody’s case that the concept of proxy must be imported wholesale into our electoral reforms. We can tweak it to allow only kith and kin (tightly defined) to cast votes on behalf of their relatives while casting their own votes. For good measure, in addition to kith and kin back home, NRIs themselves could be allowed to vote for fellow NRIs. To wit, if a father is coming all the way from California on an official mission on election eve, he should be allowed to bring signed proxy forms of his wife and adult children for voting at the polling booth in India. If, despite all these safeguards, the regime is found not to be foolproof, the NRIs should be allowed to exercise their franchise from the comfort of their homes away from home online, subject to safeguards including passwords and OTPs.
Assuming online voting too is found unworkable or not foolproof or in severe disfavour with the bureaucracy, a regime should be put in place under which NRIs are allowed to vote at Indian embassies or consulates. Surely, such establishments can be provided with the requisite infrastructure and capability. They can also be trusted to cooperate and coordinate with the EC. The EVMs can be flown to Indian counting centers so that parties in fray can keep an eagle eye on them on the day of counting.
There may be shrill objection from opposition parties who might see in the proposal a threat to their success at the hustings, especially in a tight contest given the phenomenal Indian diaspora patronage and adoration Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys. However, that should be brushed aside in the interest of giving a fair deal to our NRI brethren. India is the largest democracy and hence should blaze the trail in this regard. It simply cannot afford to fob off its overseas citizens with a right that is unworkable if not worthless. Their umbilical cords with their homeland remain unsevered and their heart will beat for their motherland faster. Their sense of affinity will grow beyond remittances to their kith and kin in its wake. In short, the sense of belonging would be heightened. Our NRIs deserve a meaningful and workable voting right.
It will also enhance the worth of the so-called dual passport regime India has with a few countries including the US, under which the holder in the US can enter India anytime without a visa after having become a US citizen.
S Murlidharan is a freelance columnist and writes on economics, business, legal, and taxation issues
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