Voting Rights in India to Non-Resident Indians

Introduction

Human Rights are the most basic rights and are to be exercised by all human beings irrespective of the place they belong. However, emigrates are denied the most democratic right – the right to vote. The right to vote encourage political participation and enables the citizens to keep a check on the government. Also, the right to vote empowers to influence governmental decisions and policies. The UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) provides that everyone has the right to take part in governing his country. The ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) provides that every citizen has the right and the opportunity to participate without any unreasonable restrictions in the conduct of public affairs to vote. The election shall be held by secret ballot guaranteeing the free expression of the voter’s will.

An NRI elector is a person who is a citizen of India and resides outside India due to education or employment but has not acquired citizenship in any other country. He is eligible to be registered as a voter in the constituency of his native place in India. Now, who is eligible to be registered as a voter? A person who has attained 18 years of age on first January of the year in which revision of the electoral roll published finally. 

Voting Rights of NRI

Until 2010, NRIs were not allowed to cast their vote during the general elections if they reside outside India for six months under Section 19 of the Representation of People Act, 1950. To crystallize voting rights for the NRIs, the government brought the Representation of People (Amendment) Act, 2010, and Section 20 (A) was inserted. The section states that if an NRI deemed to an ordinary resident, he is allowed to join the electoral rolls. However, an NRI voter needs to be physically present in the constituency to vote according to this Act.

Background

The Election Commission began to look for options to permit NRIs to vote from abroad after receiving lots of requests including, the Ministry of Overseas Affairs and Naveen Jindal (Industrialist, former Rajya Sabha MP). Three writ petitions from NRIs were filed in the Supreme Court by NRIs in 2013-2014. After the Lok Sabha election in 2014, a 12-member committee established to study primarily three options:- 

  1. Voting by post
  2. Online voting
  3. Voting at an Indian mission abroad

Online Voting was averted by the committee as this could compromise the secrecy of voting. Lack of adequate resources led to the proposal to vote at Indian Mission abroad to shut down. In 2015, the panel recommended NRIs the options for proxy voting and e-postal ballot apart from voting in person. The Ministry of law accepted the advice on proxy voting. 

About the Proxy Voting 

In 2017, the Union Cabinet passed the proposal on the proxy voting right. The government introduced a bill amending the Representation of the People Act, 1950. Lok Sabha passed the Bill; however, approval from Rajya Sabha was still pending when the Bill lapsed due to the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha. 

Now, the Election Commission suggested postal voting rights for NRIs where consent of the Parliament was not necessary. The postal voting facility can extend to the NRIs elector by amending the Conduct of Election Rules 1961. Parliaments consent is not necessary for this. 

Current Strength of NRI Voters

In 2015, the UN reported that India has the largest diaspora population of 16 million people. In comparison to the population, registration of NRI voters is very low; according to the Election Commission, approx 1 lakh NRIs registered as voters in India. About 25,000 NRIs only flew to India during the 2019 Lok Sabha Election.

Kerala (89,000) reported a large number of NRI voters. The second-largest registered NRI voters were documented in Andhra Pradesh (7,500), followed by Maharashtra approx 5,500, Karnataka about 4,500, Tamil Nadu (3,200), and 2,500 in Telangana.

Postal Voting on a Pilot Basis

In December 2020, the Ministry of External Affairs and the Election Commission held a meeting where the Election Commission mentioned the countries to the government where the postal voting will introduce on a pilot basis. In this pilot, gulf countries are excluded for now as the commission does not have any facilities against the NRIs residing in the Gulf countries like the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. The postal ballot pilot will carry out at first for voters settled in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Japan and Germany. 

Working of Postal Ballot

The Election Commission has presented the process for postal voting for NRI. Interested voters will have to inform the Returning Officer (RO) within five days after the notification for the election. The RO will send the ballot paper electronically on receiving information. In the Indian Mission, an assigned officer will download the ballot paper on behalf of the voters and give it to the NRI electors. The NRI voters can now mark the preference at the mission and give it back with a declarations form attested by the assigned officer in a sealed envelope.

Conclusion

The people residing abroad are also entitled to human rights including, the right to vote, as available to other citizens. Migration cannot be considered a ground to restrict any person to exercise this right. The right to vote instills a sense of responsibility and belongingness towards one’s nation. The Amendment brought in the Representation of People Act ensured the voting rights for NRIs still to enroll and vote a person needs to be physically present. Due to which a few numbers of NRI voters got registered, as a large number of people do not have enough time and money to travel back to India to cast their vote. However, the postal ballot system introduced by the government to ensure that NRIs could exercise their right to vote is a positive step towards ensuring the participation of NRIs in the elections and public affairs of the country. 

This article is written by Gracy Singh, a 2nd-year student pursuing a BA.LLB (Hons.) from Mody University of Science and Technology, Lakshmangarh, Rajasthan.

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