Inaugurating the 15th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations in Varanasi on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “I consider NRIs India’s brand ambassadors. They are the symbols of our capacities and capabilities.”
While Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) have been commended and honoured by successive Indian regimes over the years, and their contributions widely celebrated, the government of Narendra Modi has, from the beginning, demonstrated a specific focus and emphasis on this group. This has resulted in high profile, widely publicised engagements with gatherings of the Indian diaspora in countries that the Prime Minister has visited.
The overseas Indian community is just under 31 million strong, according to a document prepared by the Ministry of External Affairs in December 2018. This includes over 13 million NRIs, and nearly 18 million Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs). A large section in this group retains strong ties with India, visits India periodically, and is emotionally invested in the country.
In August 2018, Lok Sabha passed a Bill to amend The Representation of the People Acts of 1950 and 1951, to allow overseas voters to participate in Indian elections through a proxy. An overseas voter is a citizen of India who happens to be away from her usual place of residence in the country at the time of the election. The 1951 RPA Act allows only in-person voting. The Bill is now likely to be brought in Rajya Sabha during Parliament’s Budget Session beginning January 31.
During the debate in Lok Sabha, several MPs pointed to the practical issues of implementation of the proxy vote, including the fact that it contradicted the fundamental premise of the secret ballot, and that the Election Commission did not have a way yet to ensure accurate registration of voters. Critics have also said that the proxy vote would distort the level playing field by giving an unfair advantage to the bigger parties who have the resources to canvass the support of overseas voters.
In response, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad asked the Members to trust NRIs and not assume that they could be “lured” to “sell” their votes. “Let us say whatever, but let us not deride the contribution” of the NRIs, Prasad said. He added that the concerns raised by the MPs can be addressed while framing the Rules.