by Moiz Mannan
Not that too many of the candidates inspire an uncontrollable urge to vote for them, but citizens of a democratic country can and should have a desire to do the one thing they can to participate — cast their ballot.
Notwithstanding all the appeals from numerous organizations of non-resident Indians (NRIs) all over the world, representations made by major Indian political parties, industrialists and even the Ministry of Overseas Indians Affairs, it seems unlikely that the demand for external voting (online, postal or proxy) would be fulfilled as the country elects its 16th Lok Sabha in the coming months.
There is even a petition, yet again, in the Supreme Court of India asking for the rules to change to remove the “discrimination” against NRIs of requiring their physical presence at their native place to be able to vote. A successful medical professional and recipient of Pravasi Bharatiya Samman from the UAE has reportedly knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court of India with this plea.
We can’t really expect the court to provide any relief at this juncture. In August 2010, the apex court had disallowed a plea by Qatar-based non-resident Indian Ahammed Adyottil regarding voting rights to the country’s overseas citizens. The court rejected the petition on law points rather than on the merits of the appeal.
The fact that millions of Indians living and working abroad must and should have a say in deciding who rules them cannot be denied. The Supreme Court’s refusal to allow Adyottil’s plea was understandable. The learned bench, comprising Chief Justice S H Kapadia and justices K S Radhakrishnan and Swatanter Kumar, averred that the court could not consider a public interest litigation (PIL) concerning policy matters such as the issue of voting rights.
The judges also pointed out to Adyottil’s counsel that they would not like to interfere in the matter because a Bill pertaining to voting rights of NRIs was pending with the government. They were referring to the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, 2006.
In the present case of the UAE doctor, Shamseer Valayil Parampath, the plea has been moved against the law in question is Section 20(A) of the Representation of Peoples (Amendment) Act of 2010.
Section 20(A) had amended an earlier requirement that required a person to be “ordinarily resident” in his native constituency to have his name registered in the electoral roll. Even possessing or owning property was not enough proof of his residence to give him the right to vote.
Section 20(A) had changed all that when it was introduced in a 2010 amendment to the Representation of Peoples Act. The provision recognised the right to vote of a person “absent, temporarily or not, from his place of ordinary residence in India owing to his employment, education or otherwise outside India”.
But the petition argues that the amendment goes no further. In fact, it claims Section 20(A) short changes the NRI by giving him the right to vote on one hand, but asking him to be physically present here to actually exercise his franchise.
“This paints the entire process of empowerment as a farce as the intention behind the law cannot be fully exercised. A well-to-do businessman living abroad will have the financial ability to travel to India to vote whereas a migrant labourer will not. This runs entirely anathema to the intent of the Constitution as enshrined in Article 14,” the petition said.
Seeking recognition of the right to external voting, the PIL said the existing provisions create two distinct categories of haves and have-nots among the 1,00,37,761 NRIs (as on May 2012 as per the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs) residing abroad as less than 12,000 have enrolled themselves as voters in the electoral rolls.
The plea said it was incumbent upon the government to ensure that NRIs too have the same rights and freedom as those enjoyed by citizens living in India. It said any distinction between the two resulting in the denial of the NRIs’ right to vote would be in violation of article 19(1) as well as article 21 of the Constitution. It also quotes a report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance that 20 Asian countries (among 114 worldwide) have already adopted external voting practices such as personal voting, postal voting, proxy vote, and electronic voting.
Over the years, scores of NRI organisations, including those affiliated to India’s major political outfits, have demanded voting rights. When the amendment regarding residence was made, they termed it as a “farce” played on overseas Indians, particularly the blue-collar workers who could never possibly be physically present in India at the time of voting.
Earlier this year, a delegation of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders met Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath seeking a mechanism for postal ballot facility or voting at an Indian mission abroad or online voting to allow NRIs to participate in elections.
“Postal ballot forms can be made available either at the official website of Election Commission of India or can be provided through Indian consulates overseas posts. NRIs could then post it back to the specified address. Such ballots can be marked and sent after nomination closure date along with their Identification proof as specified by Election Commission of India. Citizens should be allowed to use E-POST Service or Indian Embassy Service,” the BJP petition said.
However, none of this has yielded any result. All authorities approached by NRIs have pointed toward the Election Commission. Media reports last month said the EC was considering a proposal to allow external voting following many representations made by expatriate Indians. Of the three options — postal ballot, voting at an Indian mission abroad or online voting — officials favour the last. Indian missions do not have enough resources to organise voting and there isn’t enough time to mail paper ballots abroad and get them back in time for counting.