Voting rights

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s announcement last Friday at the inauguration of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in New Delhi that non-resident Indians would be given voting rights meets a long-time demand of a large section of the country’s citizens living abroad. The demand has been voiced from many forums inside and outside the country. The government had made a similar announcement earlier too and had introduced in the Rajya Sabha an enabling bill to amend the Representation of People Act accordingly. The bill was referred to a standing committee whose report is before parliament.
The government plans to facilitate voting by NRIs by changing the definition of the voter from a citizen normally resident in India to include Indians living abroad too. But the facility would be of limited value because the non-resident Indian would have to be present in his constituency to exercise his voting right. It is not clear from the prime minister’s announcement whether the proposal would go beyond this and enable NRIs to vote from their places of residence outside the country, as members of the armed forces or the staff of Indian diplomatic missions abroad are allowed to do. Various suggestions like voting by postal ballots, e-voting and voting by proxy have been made for this. There is no agreement at present on the voting method NRIs can use. To put in place the technology and procedures for this, after a decision is taken on the method of voting, is very difficult at present, considering the large number of Indian citizens spread out all over the world.

Therefore the prime minister’s announcement marks only an in-principle acceptance of the proposal. It is not likely that many NRIs will come to India just to exercise their franchise. Those who happen to be in the country at the time of elections may get the right to vote. Even this is a step forward and is welcome because it removes an impediment in the exercise of the basic democratic right of a citizen living abroad. Extending the right to NRIs who want to vote from their countries of residence will take time, after an agreement is arrived at on the method and logistics. It is unlikely that it will be possible by the next elections, if the prime minster meant that by his promise.

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