Diaspora's, rights

A long-standing demand of non-resident Indians has been met with both houses of parliament passing the bill to grant them voting rights in elections in the country.

The demand and the Indian response to it has had a rollercoaster history. It took a long time for the demand to be even seriously considered, though expatriates’ organisations and Pravasi Bharatiya Sammelans had made the proposal and campaigned for it vigorously. There was resistance to the idea among many sections of people within the country who argued that non-resident Indians do not have a serious stake in the country and therefore it was not worth the legal and procedural trouble to give them voting rights. Even after the idea was accepted in principle and a law was drafted for the purpose it did not have a smooth passage.

A bill for the purpose had to be withdrawn in 2006 as the parliamentary standing committee had recommended number of changes in it. The bill, as it has been passed now, represents a consensus and more or less satisfies the demand made by the NRIs.

By an amendment to the Representation of People Act it enables an NRI to register his name in the voters’ list of his constituency. The existing provision was for removal of a person from the voters’ list if he or she stayed away from the constituency for more than six months. Electoral officers would have the power to make the necessary changes in the list after verifying details like the duration of the voters’ stay abroad and purpose of stay. The limitation of the law is that NRIs would be able to exercise their franchise only if they are present in the constituency at the time of elections. It is also not clear whether they can contest elections.

There are over 25 million NRIs and giving them the right to participate in the democratic process is a welcome step. There is, in fact, no justification for denying them the right. Greater participation will make elections more representative. Ideally, all Indians should have the right to exercise their votes from wherever they are but this may be possible only many years later, if at all.

Whatever has been done is itself an achievement. Framing the rules, formulating the procedures and implementing them properly is very important. The Election Commission will have to be vigilant against impersonation or other malpractices using fake passports or other fraudulent identity proofs.

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