- Special Pages
Sitting in their homes and offices across the globe, hundreds of thousands of Americans are busy choosing the next leader of the world’s biggest superpower. It is as easy and as quick as ordering a burger.
And, what about the world’s largest democracy? India boasts of having sent our nearly seven million of its diaspora to countries in every corner of the planet. Yet, in this day and age of highly advanced communications technology, its citizens are required to be present at the rickety polling booths in India to be able to exercise their right of adult franchise.
With elections looming over one of the most prolific manpower exporting states, Gujarat, and general elections due thereafter, many overseas Indians and their organisations have renewed the demand for absentee voting.
As many as 23 American states allow their voters staying abroad to cast their ballot via e-mail, while the remaining offer the facility via mail and fax. E-mail voting waspermitted in only 12 states during the last presidential race in 2008. But one year later, U.S. Congress signed the Military and Overseas Empowerment Act, a law that has pushed states to offer adequate time and delivery methods to voting troops and civilian expatriates.
According to data posted online by Gerry Cohen, a special counsel to the North Carolina General Assembly, roughly half of the state’s military personnel and three-fourths of its overseas voters who requested ballots opted for email transmission as of the first week of October. Nationwide, the Overseas Vote Foundation reports, about 5 percent of voters cast ballots via email.
Of course, the exercise is not without hacking concerns, but there are ways and means to make it secure. The larger issue is that of giving overseas citizens a sense of participation in the home country’s affairs.
The Indian Parliament has approved voting rights for non-resident Indians in elections with the Lok Sabha adopting the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, 2010, However, they are allowed to exercise the franchise only if they are present in the constituency on the polling day.
Election Commission figures show that just over a 10, 000 NRIs have registered are voters so far - an abysmal number compared to the Indians abroad. In Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Manipur – states that went to polls after allowing NRI voting in 2011 not a single vote was cast. In Goa and West Bengal, one NRI each cast their vote. More than two weeks into October, barey four of the 10-million-odd non-resident Gujaratis (NRGs) were reported by the media to have filled the relevant Form 6A, for applying for inclusion of their names in the electoral rolls.
The NRIs are campaigning for amendments to the bill have a provision for absentee voting facility for Indians living abroad. The options being talked about are Postal Ballot, Internet Voting or a combination of these two. The Election Commission of India (ECI), by itself or through the Indian missions overseas post the ballots to NRIs and then NRIs would post it back to the specified address.
However, given the scarcity of time and resources this would prove to be a rather herculean and cumbersome.
Alternatively, registered NRI voters could use the Internet to print ballot paper and submit online, but concerns have been raised about India’s preparedness and Internet penetrations and connectivity.
The third option is a combination of these two wherein the ECI uploads e-ballots on its website and NRIs can download, exercise their franchise and send it back as per the norms, attaching attested passport identification page copy, proof of residence or any other documents.
Reports from London last Sunday spoke of a Leicester-based group, Pravasi Bharat, which mobiled a protest near Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in Tavistock Square in central London and marched to India House where they handed the letter to a High Commission official. The letter said: “There is an important principle at stake: all citizens should have equal rights, regardless of where they happen to be at election time,’’ and pointed out that several countries such as Britain, America and Canada allowed for absentee voting for their overseas citizens.
The campaign that went online (www.pravasbharat.org and Pravasi Bharat on Facebook) also plans demonstrations in the US and is appealing to NRIs in Gulf countries to send their request letters to nearest embassies.
The North American Punjabi Association (NAPA) is another to have joined the chorus and urged the Indian government to develop a mechanism which will facilitate NRIs exercise their right to vote.