Why should NRIs get voting rights anyway?

Giving NRIs the vote makes little sense, and I say this as an Indian-American who currently lives and works in India.



By Aditya Sinha

Published: Wed 19 Jul 2017, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Wed 19 Jul 2017, 10:52 PM

India's Supreme Court last Friday asked the government to decide "within a week" whether it was going to give non-resident Indians (NRIs) voting rights by changing the election law or by changing some of its rules. The court seemed impatient, pointing out that the government had two and a half years earlier accepted a committee's 2014 recommendation to give NRIs the vote. Since then, the government seems torn on how to go about it. Perhaps it is having second thoughts.
Giving the vote to NRIs is based less on empowering expatriates than it is on political expedience. In 2014, enthusiastic NRIs arrived in India by planeloads to help elect Narendra Modi. As Modi and party chief Amit Shah look at their next important target, the 2019 parliamentary election, they want to tap that mostly Indian-American energy again. And why not? These NRIs were unaffected by the recklessness called demonetisation.
Giving NRIs the vote makes little sense, and I say this as an Indian-American who currently lives and works in India. Among my fellow Indian-Americans, the ones most politically active are not fresh immigrants but second-generation or third-generation immigrants who take little interest in India or even Indian-American diplomacy. This is normal - people embedded in a society ought to immerse themselves in that society's politics.
Such NRIs are a world apart from those at Modi's mega-events when he travels, where the audience goes bananas even before Modi arrives. These are the ones who wipe their tears with towels during Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. These are the ones whose votes Modi and Shah covet. But whereas next-generation NRIs are openly unbothered about India, scratch the surface and the new immigrants' interest in India is just as shallow. They care little about the issues that India has to grapple with; for them, civic engagement equals abusing people who differ with you. (Most obnoxious is that NRIs equate their personal success with their infallible opinions.)
Though the Supreme Court and the committee recommending the vote for NRIs have spoken of e-voting - apparently the 'American NRIs' say it is too costly for them to board a plane to travel home and vote - there are a variety of problems that need to be sorted out, besides the vulnerability of any e-transaction to hacking. To give an example, my father lives in Brooklyn, New York. The last time he voted was in his village in north Bihar, in the early 1960s. In the years after my father emigrated, his brother grabbed their modest agricultural land and sold it, before shifting to Ranchi, Jharkhand. My parents in the 1970s built a house in Muzaffarpur, north Bihar's largest trading centre, but sold it in the 1990s. I live on the outskirts of Delhi, in Haryana. So where would my father be a registered voter? His village is a cesspool of caste politics and will never allow his upper caste vote to be registered. Litigation is certain; my father is 82 and unlikely to be able to wait till India's famously slow wheels of justice finally grind to a conclusion on the matter.
Then there are the NRIs who aren't American. Nobody would want to give the vote to fugitive Mumbai crime lord Dawood Ibrahim (which of course is an extreme example given that he is on terrorism lists both in the US State Department as well as at the United Nations). Even if it is his right, unless he faces justice for the 1993 Mumbai blasts that he masterminded, he should not get the vote. But then he would have his followers and employees, or others who believe that he is righteous - just because they are NRIs, would it be prudent to give them the vote? Perhaps they did not fly down to India to vote (or perhaps some did, who knows), but with e-voting they would be tempted to tip the scales in vulnerable constituencies. It is a double-edged sword.
Finally, it would be justified for an NRI, American or otherwise, to argue that if they have the right to vote, they must have the right to contest elections (something analogous to the way Altaf Hussein runs one of Karachi's major parties, the MQM, from London). It's a slippery slope that would tax the patience of even the Supreme Court. Forget about the security aspect of a low-profile NRI setting up parties or contesting elections in Mumbai; should any NRI be allowed to legislate on matters ­- most of which don't touch their lives in any tangible way?
I wouldn't be surprised if the government is having second thoughts. Yet if it goes ahead then it should be prepared for consequences that are unintended.
 Aditya Sinha is a senior journalist based in India
 


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