When will Indian expats be allowed to cast their votes from abroad?

Upcoming assembly polls, slated to be held later this month, have revived the raging debate

  
 

Assembly polls in four states and a union territory (UT) in India later this month have revived the discussion on when the Indian expatriate community will be allowed to cast their votes from outside their country.

“The Indian government should allow non-resident Indians (NRIs) to vote. We should also have a say in who forms the government at the state level and at the centre. Our families are there. As NRIs, especially the ones based in the Gulf region, we’re deeply connected with India. We follow the news closely, make frequent trips, remit in large amounts, and eventually most of the expatriates here return to India,” said M Sakir, a long-time resident of the UAE. “If I have some business-related work that I can align with the election dates, I do that. Else, it gets difficult to go.”

Vishwanathan, a restaurant manager in Dubai, agreed. “If there’s a provision here to vote, I will surely do so, but going to India isn’t viable for me,” he said.

The four Indian states going to polls at the end of the month are Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal. Puducherry is the lone UT.

Of these, Kerala has the highest number of overseas Indians registered in the voters’ list. The state also has the highest level of participation in the democratic exercise. As per the data gathered by the Election Commission of India (ECI) during the 2019 parliamentary election, there are 118,000 overseas Indians registered as voters for the elections. Of these, Kerala has the highest at about 89,000 and Tamil Nadu has 3,200. But only about 25,000 of these registered voters flew to India to cast their ballot in the 2019 parliamentary elections.

“Millions of Indians are working in foreign countries. Travelling to India on voting day might not be feasible for many. There are many factors: the cost of travel, availing leave from work, and much more,” said advocate Haris Beeran, who has been appearing in the Supreme Court of India (SCI) for Dr Shamsheer Vayalil, founder and chairman of VPS Healthcare, who had filed a petition in the Indian apex court in 2014 seeking postal ballot for NRIs.

“Dr Shamsheer Vayalil recently met the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of India, Sunil Arora, at his office in New Delhi. It was a very positive meeting. The ECI is convinced that the demand is genuine and legitimate. The CEC informed us that the ECI is working actively with the Ministry of Law and Justice and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to find a favourable solution. The ECI has said that they are ready to facilitate postal voting through the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) for NRIs,” added Beeran.

The policy of requiring physical participation of the electorate in the voting process is discouraging NRIs’ participation. In an online poll run by Khaleej Times on its social media accounts, Indian expatriates were asked if they plan to travel to the country to cast their ballot in their respective state elections. A little over a quarter said yes. The rest — at 73 per cent — answered in the negative.

Altogether, 1,535 social media users had taken part in the online poll.

The demand for an electoral framework catering to the needs of Indian citizens living abroad has gained significant momentum in the past decade.

The Representation of the People Act, 1950, originally required citizens to physically reside within their constituency for them to register as voters. However, an amendment in 2011 changed that requirement and allowed overseas Indian citizens to register in the constituency, which was mentioned in their passports, effectively giving NRIs voting rights.

The proposal to further give more relaxed voting rights to the NRIs by the way of e-voting or proxy voting, however, is in the works.

In 2018, India’s lower house of parliament had passed a bill to allow NRIs to vote by proxy. However, it was not passed by the upper house which has delayed its implementation.

It is not just the NRIs who miss the chance to make a difference in polls, but also migrant workers in India who rarely are able to exercise their democratic right. According to industry estimates, millions of citizens fail to partake in casting their vote due to geographical constraints.

Typically, Indian states with higher rates of migration are known to have lower voter turnout, data revealed.

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