Voting Rights for NRIs
The eligibility criteria for having your name included in the electoral rolls includes, as on date, having “ordinary resident” status in your constituency. Quite naturally, this disqualifies NRIs from voting. The only exceptions provided are for members of the armed/paramilitary forces and civil servants who are posted abroad [Source: The Hindu]. The exceptions are provided, I think, because these people leave their constituencies on explicit Government orders. Without this exception, it would amount to the Government having forcibly taken away their voting rights. Civil servants serving within India, but not in their home constituency, are expected to register themselves in their new constituencies – just like any other citizen who migrates within the country.
The first reform that needs to be implemented is, therefore, to change the definition of “ordinary resident” to include the NRIs.
So much for eligibility criteria. Then comes implementation. The exceptional cases noted above can vote by postal ballots or by proxy (not available to civil servants posted abroad). The same facility can, in theory, be made available to NRIs after modifying the eligibility criteria suitably.
Consider the postal ballots first. They are rather ineffective owing to the delays in receiving them on time. Even when posted from within India, not many of them end up being counted. There are only a few weeks available, from the time candidates are finalized for a constituency to the time when votes are cast, to carry out the entire process of postal ballots. Imagine the delays when the ballots are posted from abroad. If the Indian Embassies were to collect such ballots and send them to India with a special flight, they would still have to be distributed around the country – and that’s going to face the same roadblocks that postal ballots posted from within India face right now. Logistically, the idea is a non-starter. In fact, it should perhaps be done away with even for the existing cases.
Postal ballots can be made more feasible if more time is available between finalising the candidates and the polling. However, that leads to other problems like overly long campaigning season and consequent increase in expenditure incurred by all parties concerned (political parties as well as the electoral machinery).
Voting by proxy sounds like a good idea. People can nominate a family member or a trusted friend to vote on their behalf. While the legal tangles for doing this in the case of members of armed forces and paramilitary forces (who have this facility available to them right now) are also non-trivial, the process can be simplified. Ideally, it shouldn’t be more challenging than granting a power of attorney.
The easily-noticed downside that I see to proxy voting is that if it is opened to NRIs, people who migrate within India would also have to allowed to vote by proxy. If not, I foresee a PIL being filed in the Supreme Court against discrimination. Justifiably so, in my opinion.
But if proxy voting is opened to internal migrants, that leads to another set of problems – outright sale of votes and massive fraud. Political parties would simply purchase proxy votes.
Now, it is possible to imagine some restrictions that can be placed on proxy voting. Most of them sound impractical though. A voter can only cast his/her own vote and not more than one proxy vote? That’ll disenfranchise people who have several family members living away. A voter can only cast his/her own vote and for all (or N number of) family members/relatives? This would lead to sale of votes as political parties would get the heads of families to vote on behalf of their family members. This is not a non-issue in a quasi-feudal society like ours. Even now, in many villages, you can easily find heads of families “supervising” the votes of their family members. Not to forget that there are plenty of people who would prefer their friends to vote by proxy for them rather than family members.
While I think that proxy voting is the most feasible idea to allow NRIs to vote, I have not yet been able to convince myself that it is actually doable in practice (most feasible =/= feasible enough).
Other ideas floating around include things like voting at the Indian Embassies. I find them non-starters because of logistical reasons and also because I doubt that many NRIs will take the trouble of traveling significant distances (and at considerable personal expense) to Embassies and Consulates to cast their votes. In large and/or expensive countries like USA, Canada and UK (which have significant number of NRIs), it is unlikely that NRIs residing outside of cities that house the Embassies/Consulate will actually exercise their voting rights. In West Asia, second-home to many NRIs, the NRI population- in general – can’t afford to take a day off from work. Oh, and then we have the same logistical issue of getting the votes to their respective constituencies in time to be counted (already discussed in the context of postal ballots).
In summary, I am yet to think of a solution that will enable NRI voting while not adversely impacting resident voters. But I am open to ideas.