The Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill 2017 was introduced in the Lok Sabha by Law and Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on December 18, paving the way to fulfill an important demand of the Indian diaspora. Dual citizenship and voting rights are the two major demands of the Indian diaspora forcing both the UPA and the NDA governments to grapple with the two issues for several years. Both governments have sought to woo the influential and growing Indian diasporic community through various policy measures.
Early January is the time for the annual diaspora interaction with the grand gathering of overseas Indians at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on January 9, the day Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa. The PBD is now held biennially; this year the government is organising a conference of Parliamentarians of Indian Origin in Delhi on January 9. About 130 elected representatives are expected to attend the conference at the invitation of Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will address a Regional Pravasi Divas for Asean countries in Singapore on January 8.
Parliament amended the People’s Representation Act was amended in 2010 during the UPA government to allow Non-resident Indians (NRIs) to vote.
However, NRIs were not satisfied as it required them to be present in their constituency at election time to cast their vote. The Supreme Court took up the issue of voting rights for non-resident Indians in 2014 on a public interest litigation by two NRIs and asked the Election Commission to examine the proposal.
The Election Commission formed a panel to examine the feasibility of NRI voting; the panel considered four possible methods through which NRIs could exercise their franchise. These included postal ballots, voting at the embassies, online voting and voting by proxy. Voting at the embassies was ruled out as not feasible by the Ministry of External Affairs, and postal ballots had logistical problems. The Election Commission favoured the e-ballot proposal in which a ballot paper could be sent electronically to the registered voter, who could mark it and send it by post to the Returning Officer.
During the panel’s consultations with national political parties, all major political parties with the exception of Bharatiya Janata Party expressed their reservations on proxy voting. Some opposition leaders and others consulted by the panel held that proxy voting could be misused as there was no guarantee that the proxy would actually vote according to the wishes of the voter. Others contended that proxy voting would negate the requirement of a secret ballot that was guaranteed under the Constitution.
The government, however chose the proxy voting method. Defence personnel are allowed to appoint a proxy for voting, but according to the bill, NRIs would have to nominate a different proxy for every election. The bill could not be taken up for discussion during the short winter session of Parliament.
The Indian overseas community is about 30 million, including 13 million non-resident Indians and about 17 million are Persons of Indian Origin (PIO). There are about 8.5 million Indian expatriates living in the Gulf countries. More than 10 million NRIs are estimated to get the right to vote in Indian elections even while they remained abroad once the bill is passed in Parliament. The demand for voting rights originally arose among Indians living in the Gulf countries. Indians in the Gulf were mainly on short-term work visas; they make regular trips to their home towns and so are aware of political developments in their home states.
Later the demand was taken up by NRIs in the US, Canada and several other countries.
The Indian diaspora is often described as “unofficial ambassadors” for India. A successful, prosperous and influential diaspora is seen as an asset for India and a valuable tool for strengthening economic linkages and enhancing India’s soft power. The presence of a sizeable Indian community has a significant bearing on India’s political relations with the host country.
While most governments have reached out to the diaspora, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has elevated India’s diaspora policy to a high priority in India’s foreign policy. He has also linked the diaspora to India’s development strategy seeking to bring the diasporic community closer to India.
Voting rights has been a long pending demand of overseas Indians. Its implementation is likely to take political activity abroad as political parties seek support within the diasporic communities. Overseas Indians have been active in recent elections, several of them returning home to be part of election campaigns. Punjab, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh politicians are most active in going abroad to seek support from the diasporic community, but they will need to be careful not to rile local politicians in the host countries by their overseas campaigning. Several countries frown on foreign political activity.