Allowing proxy voting for NRIs may notserve the right purpose

Idea of NRI voting goes back to 2003, when a sizeable group of Indians launched an initiative called the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas

By S.Y. Quraishi

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Published: Thu 17 Aug 2017, 10:24 PM

Last updated: Fri 18 Aug 2017, 12:25 AM

A large number of Indian citizens live abroad while studying, working or for other reasons. Until recently, these non-resident Indians (NRIs) were not registered to vote in India due to the law, which required only an "ordinarily resident" citizen within the territorial limits of a constituency to be registered as a voter. On August 3, the government approved changes in electoral laws allowing NRIs to cast their vote for assembly and Lok Sabha elections from overseas through a proxy, with one caveat - the proxy could be appointed for only one poll. Until now only armed forces personnel were allowed to appoint proxies - they could appoint any adult living in the constituency as permanent proxies for all polls. Approximately one crore Indians are settled abroad, of whom about 60 lakhs are adults and are eligible to vote.

The idea of NRI voting goes back to 2003, when a sizeable group of Indians launched an initiative called the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. When their demand snowballed, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his address to the 8th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in 2010, said that NRIs would be able to vote from the following year.

His announcement came out of the blue for the Election Commission (EC). Operational difficulties had neither been studied nor discussed. To implement this promise, the Representation of the People Act 1950 was amended and came into effect on February 10, 2011, with a new section, Section 20A. This section made special provisions for every citizen of India residing outside the country to enrol themselves an electors, provided they had not acquired the citizenship of any other country and were otherwise eligible to be registered as a voter.

With great trepidation, the EC took up the challenge.

Elections to Kerala, Tamil Nadu and three other states were due within a month at that time. Only NRIs from Kerala registered - about 8,500 people - and half of them turned up to vote as well. One NRI even contested the poll. The response in the other states, however, was less than desirable.

Proxy voting

The issue of proxy voting for NRIs came up in a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court in 2014. The Supreme Court asked the EC to initiate a committee to examine the proposal, following which the Committee for Exploring Feasibility of Alternative Options for Voting by Overseas Electors was set up. The EC looked at existing systems across the world and shortlisted four possible ones: voting in embassies, online voting, postal or e-postal ballot and proxy voting.

The committee ruled out the first two possibilities - voting in embassies and online voting - for logistical and technical reasons and zeroed in on the last two - postal ballots and proxy voting. The committee concluded that providing the proxy voting facility was operationally the most simple and viable option for facilitating voting by overseas electors. Regarding the issue of trust in the proxy raised by political parties, it is important to note that this issue is also applicable in the case of service voters who appoint proxies. It is expected that a person will appoint a proxy only when there is trust in the proxy.

The Supreme Court then asked the government to examine the proposals of the committee. On August 3, the government approved changes to the law to allow NRIs to vote through proxies.

Asserting the right to free and fair elections

It is important to remember that many election commission officials, including former chief election commissioners T.S. Krishnamurthi and N. Gopalaswamy, have raised doubts about proxy voting.

Krishnamurthi has said that blanket provision for proxy voting is "not desirable". It should be tried out "on a limited scale to see what is the fallout." Secondly, it would be better to first try very selectively for persons with disabilities and the ailing. He also argues that allowing proxy voting will alter the voting patterns in states with large NRI population.

Gopalaswamy, on the other hand, refers proxy voting as 'a beehive that will sting'. He also said that NRI voting is "something which is uncalled for", arguing why is the same provision not available for migrants who have to return to villages (to vote) losing wages? He also notes that there seems to be a greater emphasis on NRIs instead of improving voting facilities for soldiers.

I strongly endorse these views. Besides, the arguments of the EC-appointed committee about the inconvenience and workload of returning officers in handling e-postal ballots is not acceptable. A few hundred extra postal ballots should not make much of a difference to their work.

The EC has always treaded with caution. Every reform was first tested in a small territory before scaling it up. Reckless adventurism in as sensitive a matter as elections is fraught with serious consequences.

The matter will now come up in parliament. I hope the parliament will consider this matter keeping in mind the long-term national interest, and not short-term political gains. -The Wire

S.Y. Quraishi is the former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder - The Making of the Great Indian Election. He is a Distinguished Fellow at Ashoka University.

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