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by Moiz Mannan
In just about a week’s time, the prosperous western state of Gujarat goes to the polls with the effervescent BJP leader, Narendra Modi being informally projected as the Chief Minister-on-way-to-Prime Minister.
A total of 1,666 candidates are in the fray to fill the 182-member Gujarat Legislative Assembly. The number of contestants has increased by nearly 400 over the last assembly elections in 2007. The ruling BJP has fielded candidates on all the 182 Assembly constituencies and is bidding for extending its 17-year rule in Gujarat. The opposition Congress has fielded candidates on 181 Assembly seats in alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The number of non-resident Indian (NRI) voters to have registered theri names for polling is five. According to estimates by the centre of Gujarat State Non-Resident Gujarati Foundation (GSNGF), there are nearly six million Gujaratis spread across 120 countries. Other estimates put the number much higher at around seven million. The Gujarat Chief Election Officer (CEO) was recently quoted by PTI as saying that “Just five overseas electors are registered with us so far, one from Kutch and four from Navsari district. They can vote on producing passport.” To facilitate participation in the polls, the Election Commission of India ( ECI) had introduced the concept of overseas electors, where every Indian citizen staying in a foreign country, holding an Indian passport, can register for voting by filing Form 6A.
After enrolment, the person can cast vote in election in the constituency, if he is present in the polling station along with his original passport on the day of poll. Sounds pretty simple and straightforward; just fly down to your village from wherever you are across the globe and be a part of the decision-making process. Sarcasm apart, not just the political leaders of Gujarat, but those at the helm of affairs in the country need seriously to take a second look at this apparent apathy among overseas Indians.
Are the NRIs cut off from their roots? Have they lost all involvement with home? Well, if we look at the case of Gujarat itself, we find that NRI deposits with banks in Gujarat has increased by over 10.5 per cent to Rs 25,400 crores as on March 2012 against Rs 22,976 crore as on March 31, 2011. The growth in NRI deposits during the year is the highest in past four years. These are figures from the Gujarat state level bankers’ committee (SLBC).
Whether this spurt was triggered by the falling rupee or the rising interest rates or both is not the point here. What’s important is that at every opportunity, overseas Gujaratis have looked towards home. Overseas Gujaratis have also been active investors in the state’s economy – be it real estate, manufacturing or hospitality. Gujaratis have created immensely wealth regardless of their location, but more so abroad. Major Indian political parties and leaders – particularly the BJP and the Congress – and their leaders have perpetually been at pains to develop a clout among non-resident Gujaratis for this reason. Even in this instance, many political bigwigs, including Narendra Modi did not fail to reach out to the overseas Gujarati in person or through election messages.
And yet, the election commission’s figures are appalling. What’s happened? In answer to that, Indian politicians are still engaging themselves in rather simplistic thinking. “If resident Indians themselves are so apathetic about voting, why we should expect the NRIs to be keen?” one politician from Gujarat was quoted as saying.
To some extent an apathetic attitude is definitely palpable. For one, there is an overriding sense of indifference about Indian politics and politicians among NRIs who feel “everyone is corrupt.” Other than that, there is sizeable chunk which feels that the Gujarat election result is a foregone conclusion and their voting one way or the other is not going to change anything. The issue of communal harmony, which is closely linked to politics, has also put off many overseas Gujaratis. Having said all that about Gujarat, let’s take a look at what happened elsewhere with regard to NRIs’ participation in elections since the time they were ‘bestowed’ with the much-trumpeted right to vote.
Punjab had over 70 NRIs registered on the electoral rolls, which were updated just before the assembly elections early this year.
Last year, NRIs from the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam and Pondicherry were the first to avail of the right to adult franchise under the new rules. While a plane-load of Malayalee expatriates was reported to have descended upon Kozhikode for the express purpose exercising their right of franchise, the state elections of West Bengal saw just a solitary NRI turn up all the way from Muscat. Although, the new law enables them to register as voters in their home constituencies, it demands for them to be physically present in India to cast their ballot.
NRI organisations across the world had demanded alternative methods to enable them to vote in their host country. While some were in favour of on-line voting, others thought it best to allow postal ballots or polling at respective diplomatic missions.