CPI(M) GENERAL secretary Sitaram Yechury on Friday wrote to Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora, expressing surprise and shock over reports that the poll panel has approached the government asking it to permit Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) to cast their votes through postal ballots in the upcoming assembly elections in four states.
He argued that the proposal of “dispatching the ballot paper electronically” is fraught with the “challenge of manipulation” and demanded that the Election Commission (EC) before taking the next step must immediately convene an all-party meeting to discuss, what he called, the “complex issues” involved in the effective extension of voting rights to NRIs at the earliest.
The Indian Express had on December 1 reported that the EC has told the Law Ministry that it is “technically and administratively ready” to extend the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) to NRI voters for elections next year in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
The CPI(M), Yechury said, is in favour of extending a “more effective voting right” to overseas Indians and NRIs and had suggested the setting up of polling booths at Indian embassies and missions, but “our sense of shock flows from the blatant departure from the conventional modus operandi adopted by the Election Commission of consultations with political parties before finalising issues of such major import”.
He said the practice of setting up polling booths in embassies, mission and other facilities is followed by many countries and “conforms to the practice of physical verification of the voters”.
Yechury pointed out that the EC had held an all-party consultation in 2014 to discuss the possible methods to “actualise a full-proof mechanism” to ensure a free and fair poll so far as the NRI voters are concerned when it first took up the proposal to permit NRI voters to cast their votes. He pointed out that a Bill was also introduced in Parliament to extend the facility of proxy voting to overseas Indians but it lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha.
“The ECI’s letter to the Law Ministry now proposes to give postal voting rights not proxy voting to NRIs. This means the government only needs to amend the Conduct of Election Rules 1961. It doesn’t require Parliament’s approval. The current reported proposal of the ECI has never been discussed at an all-party consultation as is the normal practice and a well-established precedent. It is clear that none of the alternatives, which were part of the study of the expert group commissioned by the ECI in 2015 to draw up a concrete proposal, could come up with a full proof arrangement,” he wrote.
Claiming that the proposal of “dispatching the ballot paper electronically” is fraught with the challenge of manipulation, he wrote, “Seen against the ‘physical verifiability of the voter as an inviolable principle’ for casting the vote, ensuring it in the context of an overseas/NRI voter through the electronic transmission of the ballot is clearly problematic. The dispatch of the marked out ballot through the election authority at the constituency level is another complex challenge. Clearly, the issue is how to protect the secrecy and integrity of the ballot which will be received by the individual elector.”
“The fact that these voters are working in conditions which are not immune from external influences, including their foreign employers, is the most worrying factor,” he wrote.
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