From polling stations set up to serve just two voters, to EVMs being carried across mountain ranges on the backs of donkeys, the Election Commission is rightly proud of its steadfast commitment to its role: ensuring that all Indian adults can vote at election time. And yet one massive voting bloc has, for all practical purposes, been denied franchise: The nearly 13.5 million Indians who live overseas. For most of my life, I have been among their number.
Until 2010, NRIs could not vote at all. The Representation of the People (Amendment) Act passed that year marginally improved the situation by allowing NRIs to enrol themselves on the electoral roll. But the right to vote came with a giant caveat: NRIs had to physically attend a polling booth in their home constituency on the day of the election. NRIs are thus expected to interrupt their lives overseas and return to India just to exercise their fundamental right to vote – an onerous requirement that most cannot afford. The outcome is predictable: Fewer than one per cent of expat Indians are registered on the electoral roll.
Dozens of countries have provisions for expats to vote from abroad, at their embassies or through postal ballots. The usual excuses deployed when it comes to creating a similar model for India – the expenses involved, or the practical difficulties of serving such a large population – don’t seem to carry much merit: plenty of middle-income countries with vast expatriate populations, including Indonesia, Mexico, and the Philippines, allow their nationals to vote from overseas. Remote voting has been endlessly discussed in recent years by the Ministry of External Affairs, the courts, and the Election Commission, but the practical effect on our ability to vote from abroad has been precisely nil.
The effects of this failure are tangible and significant. Because NRIs are effectively prevented from voting, political parties have little incentive to discuss the challenges faced by the diaspora. No more than a handful of MPs pays much attention to diaspora issues – and why should they, when our ability to influence politics is so negligible? Think of the vast amounts of effort and money put into the elections in Himachal Pradesh just a few weeks ago. The population of Indians abroad is almost twice that of Himachal – but despite our huge numbers, the interests of expatriate Indians barely feature at election time, or any other. We rely entirely on the goodwill of whoever is in charge of the MEA at any given time.
The appalling quality of India’s political discourse extends into this sphere, too: When NRIs rightly complain about our lack of agency, we are often told that we have no right to do so, having chosen to live away from India. This is nonsense. As Indian citizens, we are entitled to several fundamental rights – one of which is the right to elect our representatives. We hugely contribute to the country: the Indian diaspora sends more money home than any other in the world, a source of steady national income that amounts to 3 per cent of GDP and is set to reach $100 billion this year.
This Kala-pani mindset is archaic and unproductive, and has no place in an India claiming to be open to the world. We cannot hope to become a superpower by spurning our diaspora.
We thus have a situation in which diaspora Indians contribute a great deal, and in return are deprived of the right to choose their representatives. More than 600,000 NRIs gave up their passports between 2017 and 2021. Perhaps for some of them, it was this deliberate severing of the links that bind us to home, this inability to influence the direction of our home country – as is our right as Indian citizens – that proved the final straw. This is no way to treat a diaspora, especially not when most of the world does it so much better.
Postal or embassy voting would be a good start, but the most effective way of ensuring that the diaspora is properly represented would be through serious parliamentary reform. As a student in France, I was struck by the French parliament’s commitment to ensuring that its diaspora’s voice was heard: eleven of its seats are reserved for French citizens overseas. Like ordinary constituencies, these are divided by geography – areas with lots of French nationals get their own dedicated seats, while regions, where expats are more broadly distributed, are bundled together in one constituency. And France is far from being unique in this respect: The national parliaments of seventeen countries have constituencies reserved for the diaspora, ranging from one seat to Tunisia’s 18. This model would work perfectly for India: our expatriate population is massive and spread widely throughout the world. Creating overseas constituencies and allowing NRIs to vote as part of a geographical bloc – say, one seat for Indians in the UK, another for those in Oceania, and so on – would allow elected MPs to fight for the interests of those groups, as is their right by virtue of their Indian citizenship. The citizens of Varanasi or Wayanad know that their voice is represented, and that they can express themselves politically. Why not the Indians of New Jersey or Nairobi – who, after all, hold the same nationality, governed by the same constitution?
An overseas-constituencies system would of course be good for Indians abroad – but equally, it would be an opportunity for political parties. Surely the possibility of millions of votes is a tempting one? NRIs are a vast and overlooked sector; we have our own aspirations and frustrations, and would no doubt richly reward those who fight for us back home. Adopting this model would allow overseas Indians, finally, for the first time, to be politically represented on equal terms with our fellow citizens. We belong to our country as much as anyone else; we must get a say in what kind of country that is.
The writer is a research and policy scholar