At a time when India is courting People of Indian Origin from various parts of the world — people who are, by definition, foreign citizens — it is anomalous that most of its citizens living abroad are disallowed from casting their votes. This disenfranchising of Non-Resident Indians is a serious infirmity in the electoral process, something that has been repeatedly pointed out by the NRIs as well as civil rights activists in India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s hope that Indian citizens living abroad will be able to vote in the next general election promises to redress a longstanding grievance and terminate a blatantly discriminatory provision in the electoral law. Under Article 19 of the Representation of the People Act 1950, only those “ordinarily resident” in a constituency are eligible to be registered in the electoral rolls. Since most NRIs either study or work abroad, often for extended periods, they lose their status as ordinary residents under Section 20 of the Act and are liable to be struck off the electoral rolls. As for those who remain on the electoral rolls, by virtue of not being struck off before the next revision, the only way is to cast a ballot in person, which means returning home (which may not quite be home).
This is not simply an unreasonable provision; it is an utterly iniquitous one. Under the Conduct of Election Rules 1961, the ordinary NRI is excluded while various classes of people are given the facility to cast absentee or postal ballots. They include not only ‘special voters’ such as the President, Vice-President, Governors, and Union and State Ministers, but also ‘service voters,’ a category that includes armed forces personnel and staff in diplomatic missions. A number of countries, from the United States and Canada to Argentina and the Philippines, make it possible for their overseas citizens to vote. The Government of India must waste no time in reintroducing the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill in Parliament. The Bill, which sought to amend the RP Act 1950, by inserting a sub-section that classifies citizens who take up “employment, education or otherwise outside India” as ordinary residents, was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 2006. Evidently it made a number of political interests uneasy, so it was referred to a parliamentary standing committee and the Union Law Ministry has been ‘examining’ it ever since. The facility to vote must be seen not as a favour done to ordinary Indian citizens living abroad — but as their right. Once the conceptual and legal shift takes place, the Election Commission of India will need all the time it can get to set up necessary mechanisms to allow them to vote in 2014.