The Government on Wednesday approved changes in electoral laws to permit Non-Resident Indians to cast their vote in assembly and Lok Sabha elections from overseas. If the proposal passes political muster in Parliament, NRIs will be able to exercise their voting rights through “proxy”. Currently, only service personnel are permitted to vote through proxy.
However, the facility for NRIs will not be the same as that enjoyed by service personnel. For instance, voters in the armed forces can nominate their relatives as permanent proxy to vote on their behalf. But the Union Cabinet’s approval for proxy voting by NRIs carries a caveat: they cannot nominate one proxy for all polls.
Overseas electors will have to appoint a nominee afresh for each election — one person can act as proxy for only one overseas voter. With the Cabinet’s approval, sources said, suitable rules and guidelines will be framed to make this move effective soon. Currently, voters residing abroad can only cast their votes in their respective constituencies. This regulation is seen as restrictive as only a few thousand Indians living overseas have registered as voters, the maximum being from Kerala. Of these, barely anyone has travelled to the country to exercise his or her franchise.
The government was earlier considering granting them postal voting rights similar to voters in the armed forces, who can receive ballot papers electronically and print them. Service voters mark their preference on ballot printouts and send them through post after verification by station officers for counting. However, the government felt this procedure will be too cumbersome to implement in case of NRIs who live all over the world — a team of Ministers were constituted to discuss this aspect, and a final decision is awaited.
According to rough estimates, there are about 1 crore Indians settled abroad, of which 60 lakh could be of eligible voting age. They could hold considerable sway in election results, especially in states such as Punjab, Gujarat and Kerala, where a number of expats hail from. The move to grant proxy voting rights to overseas electors is significant against the backdrop of BJP’s claims of enjoying huge goodwill among NRIs. The party sought to deepen its electoral appeal among them through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public outreach programmes during his foreign visits after coming to power in 2014.
The proposal to permit NRI voters to cast their vote from overseas was taken up seriously by the election commission in 2014 after it received several requests regarding this matter, including one from Rajya Sabha MP and industrialist Naveen Jindal and the Ministry of Overseas Affairs. Interestingly, during the election commission’s consultations with political parties on proxy voting for NRIs, BSP, CPI and Congress did not support the idea while the BJP was in favour of it. BSP, CPI and Congress felt that there was no guarantee that the proxy voter will vote as per the wishes of the actual elector. The parties also argued that the plan suffers from the problem of “trust deficiency” and violates the principle of “secret ballot”.