By Moiz Mannan
With state assembly elections in the major states of Maharashtra and Haryana fast approaching and the increased probability of polls being called also in Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand and Delhi, the focus will once again be on the accessibility of the right to vote for non-resident Indians (NRIs).
This time, because the Election Commission of India is reported to have finally begun the process of setting up a mechanism that could exempt NRIs from being physically present in their home constituency to be able to vote. A committee specially appointed for the purpose is finalising its report.
Assembly elections are soon due in Maharashtra and Haryana. Special circumstances in Delhi and Jharkhand and the winter in Jammu and Kashmir might prompt the election commission to also call elections in these states as early as October.
Non-resident Indians from all these states would like to have a say in the poll outcomes through their ballot. One might recall the unprecedented level of interest which NRIs across the globe took in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections right through the campaign. It is just that only a handful of them could actually make to their home constituencies to vote.
For long, and more so since the much-touted change of rules in 2010, the entire NRI community, their organizations, high-profile individuals and even the major Indian political parties, including the BJP, have been after the election commission to facilitate NRI voting. Some individuals have also approached the courts seeking directions to the EC to allow voting in absentia for NRIs.
The current rules provide for a non-resident citizen of India to vote but require him to be physically present in his constituency. The overseas Indians find this a condition impossible to fulfil and have pointed towards the long list of countries that provide for their citizens the right to vote from abroad.
There are reports now to suggest that the election commission has taken cognizance of these representations and started thinking about ways and means to provide this service. The BJP, with a large base of overseas supporters, is now in power at the centre and the election commission is said to be examining the Gujarat model of absentee voting for non-residents.
It was in April 2011 that the state of Gujarat, with Narendra Modi as chief minister, tried out India’s first exercise in Internet voting during the Gandhinagar municipal elections. A committee constituted by the election commission to explore the possibilities of absentee voting was reported to be studying the Gujarat experiment.
There also reports of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), which helped the Gujarat in the work of online voting, making a presentation to the election commission. Senior EC officials have also visited Gujarat to see how they made it work.
The options before the EC were postal ballot, proxy voting, voting at an Indian mission or online voting. The Election Commission recently called a meeting of all national parties to seek their feedback on each of these options. The meeting was attended by BJP, Congress, CPI and CPM.
While the ruling BJP and its NDA allies had no objections to online voting, the Congress, the CPM-led Left and the NCP reportedly opposed it at the meeting on the ground that it would compromise on the basic tenet, the secret ballot system. Proxy voting, which would allow NRIs to cast their votes through a relative or an authorised person also can’t uphold the criteria of secrecy.
Allowing NRIs to vote at their embassies would be a logistical nightmare considering the number and spread of NRIs across the world and the staff shortages at the missions. Similar logistical and security difficulties have also been cited for making postal ballots available to millions of NRI voters. Officials say there just isn’t enough time to mail paper ballots abroad and get them back in time for counting.
In the case of online voting, though, each voter could be given a unique identity code that allows them to log in on polling day and vote online. This would, by and large, remain a secret exercise unless someone who had access to the codes takes the trouble of matching them with names and addresses. The other option of proxy voting is also not far behind. As it were, it is up to the voter to keep his choice a secret. Now, it would be up to him as well as his authorized representative not to tell anyone.
Hearing a petition in this regard in April this year, the Supreme Court of India had adjourned the proceedings till August end for the EC committee to complete its work and report to the court.