The story so far: On the assurance of the Attorney General that the Centre was looking at ways to facilitate distance voting for non-resident Indians (NRIs), mainly migrant labourers, the Supreme Court on November 1 disposed of a batch of petitions seeking remote voting for NRIs. The Bench led by Chief Justice U. U. Lalit said that the purpose of the petitions had been served as the government was aware and had introduced a Bill to facilitate proxy voting by overseas electors. The Bill, however, lapsed and a pilot project for postal voting is yet to see the light of day.
What is the size of the NRI electorate?
According to estimates, India has the largest diaspora population, with nearly 1.35 crore non-resident Indians spread across the globe. Many of them are in the Gulf countries, the U.S. and the U.K. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 99,844 NRIs registered and 25,606 electors turned up to vote, with a majority hailing from Kerala (25,534). In the 2014 Parliamentary elections, 11,846 NRIs registered and only a fraction turned up to vote. Of the registered overseas electors, 90% belonged to Kerala. Others registered are from Gujarat, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu among other States.
A major reason for low NRI registration and voting despite India amending the Representation of the People Act in 2010 to enable eligible NRIs who had stayed abroad beyond six months to vote is the condition that they have to visit the polling booth in person. While some observers ask why those who migrated abroad should be given special privileges in voting, the petitioners argue that NRIs should not be deprived of the franchise because they exercised their right to freely practise a profession or trade. Another question raised is whether expatriates who have been living abroad for a long period of time, say upwards of two years, should be given voting rights. Other democracies allow absentee voting if overseas electors are not abroad for a specified period and/or if they mention an “intent to return”.
What has the government done so far?
Since the in-person proviso of the amended Act discouraged many, petitions were filed in the Supreme Court between 2013 and 2014 by NRIs. The Election Commission of India (ECI) formed a Committee in 2014 on the Court’s direction to explore the options for overseas electors. The committee narrowed it down to two remote voting options — e-postal ballot and proxy voting.
The Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) involves the NRI voter sending an application to the returning officer in person or online. The returning officer will send the ballot electronically. The voter can then register their mandate on the ballot printout and send it back with an attested declaration. The voter will either send the ballot by ordinary post or drop it at an Indian Embassy where it would be segregated and posted. Proxy voting, meanwhile, enables voters to appoint proxies to vote on their behalf.
Editorial | Remote voting: On postal ballot for NRIs
Both ETPBS and proxy voting are currently available to only service voters, like those in the armed forces or diplomatic missions. In its report, the ECI said proxy voting would be a “convenient” and “doable” method.
All political parties consulted by the ECI except the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were against proxy voting as they felt it could never be guaranteed that the proxy would vote as per the actual voter’s choice. In 2017, however, the government introduced a Bill to amend the Representation of People Act to remove the condition of in-person voting for NRIs and enable them to vote through proxies. The Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha in 2018 but never introduced in the Upper House, eventually lapsing with the 16th Lok Sabha.
In 2020, the ECI wrote to the Law Ministry that it was “technically and administratively ready” to facilitate ETPBS for NRIs in the 2021 Assembly elections in five States but the External Affairs Ministry flagged “huge logistical challenges” relating to identity verification of voters, absence of polling agents, the burden on embassy staff etc.
Besides the government’s assurance in Court, the Law Ministry in March said that the Centre was exploring the possibility of allowing online voting for NRIs. The Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra said in April that ETPBS for NRIs was being contemplated.
It is yet to be seen, however, if any of the remote voting options materialise before the 2024 general elections.