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LEFT OUT IN THE COLD

Mohua Sarkar Guin from Beadon Street, Calcutta, has been working at a government agency in Singapore for the past two years. Even though she is far away from her homeland, she wants to have her say in this year’s general elections.

“Casting my vote for the party I like or perhaps pressing the NOTA (none of the above) button is doing my bit to make my country a better place,” says Guin, a registered voter of Calcutta North constituency.

But this year, she had to give voting a miss because the Supreme Court recently said that non-resident Indian (NRI) registered voters cannot vote from their overseas location, at least, not in this parliamentary polls. It upheld the Election Commission’s argument that allowing NRIs to vote from their overseas locations would lead to statutory and logistic impediments.

“It is disappointing that I cannot exercise my constitutional right to vote only because I am not physically present in the country on voting day,” Guin rues.

Guin is among an estimated 10 million Indians living abroad who will not be casting their votes this general elections.

Noting that election for some phases has already been completed, a Supreme Court bench of Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan and Justice Vikramajit Sen said that permitting NRIs to vote in the remaining phases would open a “Pandora’s box” and that in the process some NRIs would have been allowed to vote and some not.

The court was hearing a couple of petitions, including that of an NRI doctor, Shamsheer V.P., who said that 114 countries have adopted external voting and amongst it are 20 Asian countries.

“We are fighting for over a million NRIs. We want to ensure that NRIs would be able to vote from their overseas locations soon,” the petitioner’s lawyer, senior advocate Harish Salve, argues.

The petitioner had contended that any distinction between those physically present at polling booths and those overseas would be a violation of Article 19(1) as well as Article 21 of the Constitution which guarantee freedom of speech and expression.

But the court noted that the EC had already decided to constitute a committee to examine the feasibility of different options to facilitate voting by overseas NRI electors. The matter has been slated for hearing in August.

Constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap says that there are various ways in which NRIs could be allowed to vote from their overseas locations. “It could be through postal ballot, online voting, or voting at an Indian mission abroad. The forms for postal ballot can be made available either at the official website of the EC or can be provided through Indian consulates overseas. NRIs could post it back to the specified address. Such ballots can be marked and sent after the nomination closure date along with their identification proof as specified by the EC. Citizens should be allowed to use e-post service or the Indian embassy service,” Kashyap says.

More than 115 countries, including the US, UK, Canada, Germany and France, have granted the postal ballot facility to their nationals abroad.

But the EC thinks that this is a Herculean task. “It would be a tedious task to post the ballot paper to Indians abroad. Plus, it is resource intensive which incurs lot of costs,” a senior EC official says.

But Salve and others are not buying such arguments. “There is nothing impossible in today’s world which is connected by the Internet. The EC must understand that the citizen’s involvement will increase the accountability of politicians,” he says.

In the past, the names of NRIs used to get deleted from the voters’ list if they did not stay at their residence in India for six months at a stretch. But an amendment was made in the People’s Representation Act in 2011 exclusively for NRIs, which allowed them to exercise their voting rights. But for that, they had to be registered in the electoral rolls of their respective constituency before leaving India and also be physically present on the day of the election.

After this provision was made, among the 1,00,37,761 NRIs (as on May, 2012 as per the ministry of overseas Indian affairs) residing abroad, nearly 11,000 had enrolled as voters in the electoral rolls.

The Kerala Assembly election on April 13, 2011, was the first one in which NRIs got to vote. But out of about 2 million Malayalees abroad, only 8,820 NRIs had their names on the electoral rolls, and out of that only 4,639 turned up to cast their votes.

In 2013, Gujarat was the first state to conduct online voting for a local election. Many NRIs feel that the provision of online voting should be there for state and parliamentary polls.

“It will be convenient for working professionals, who are always on their laptops or smartphones. I believe this will improve the percentage of voting too. People who never bothered to cast their votes would also take a few minutes out of their busy schedules to vote. Eventually, this will reduce ‘false voting’,” Guin thinks.

NRIs argue that if the EC allows external agencies to handle the project, online voting can be perfectly feasible. Vijay Reddy, a US-based IT manager, even chalks out a strategy for this. “We have to build a system to track NRIs and then NRIs can mail their passports to the respective consulates and request absentee paper ballot or an e-ballot,” Reddy, a staunch Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter, says.

Political parties also have an eye on NRI votes. In January, a delegation of BJP leaders led by Vijay Jolly met chief election commissioner V.S. Sampath and asked him to ensure that NRIs are able to vote in the Lok Sabha polls.

“We know that we have a good vote base among NRIs but unfortunately we cannot tap them because they cannot travel to India specifically during polls. The cost of travel is too high. It is the duty of the EC to make arrangements for NRI voters,” says Jolly.

A large number of NRIs has come out in support of the Aam Aadmi Party too. “We have 5,000 active NRI volunteers across 40 countries. Plus, more than one-third of our donations comes from NRIs. If they were given a chance to vote in their overseas locations, I think we would have a huge vote base,” Shalini Gupta, coordinator, AAP Global Supporters.

But some political experts are not too keen on the idea. “A voter who lives outside the constituency is insulated from the consequences of his or her political choices. A certain amount of democratic ‘moral hazard’ comes into play when voters who do not directly suffer the consequences of their vote make choices that affect voters who do,” political commentator Nitin Pai says.

The debate continues. But in these elections at least, the NRI voter who cannot be present at the polling booth has been left firmly out in the cold.