The disenfranchised migrants

In India, where internal migration is a hard reality, a significant number of migrants are unable to vote

Published - August 30, 2019 04:52 pm IST

Voting power of Indian women. Conceptual illustration

Voting power of Indian women. Conceptual illustration

The idea of ‘one nation, one election’ is back in the public discourse and has invoked varied responses. Amidst the discussion on elections, one issue that hasn’t received much attention pertains to the fate of the migrant voters. Internal migration is a hard reality in India and in every election, a significant number of voters are rendered disenfranchised on account of residing outside their constituency. The idea of simultaneous elections is likely to deprive migrant voters of their political agency at both Central and State levels.

Setting time aside from their busy campaigns, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah reached Ahmedabad to cast their votes. After exercising his franchise, Mr. Modi said, “I feel blessed to have exercised my franchise in this biggest festival of democracy.” In contrast, a migrant from Bihar residing in Chennai said: “When I was working in Delhi, it was not much of an issue for me to go to my home town to cast my vote. Now that I am working in Chennai, that option is not open for me any more. Thus, I am not voting this time.”

According to the 2011 census, 45.36 crore Indians are internal migrants — now settled in a place different from that of their registered residence. Among them, 5.1 crore migrants moved only for economic reasons. Our general elections have earned the distinction of being the biggest festival of democracy because they have the highest number of registered voters. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections clocked a turnout of 67.11% — approximately 60 crore of the 90 crore eligible citizens voted. Of the more than 30 crore voters where weren’t able to vote, migrant workers constituted a major proportion. Hence, at least a third of our electorate continues to be on the margins when it comes to participating in the general elections.

The promise of adult franchise

India’s ‘stellar’ democratic record is primarily attributed to the right of every adult individual to become a stakeholder in the political process through the exercise of her right to vote, without any discrimination. However, over time, the practical difficulties of conducting multiple elections as well as a lack of political and bureaucratic will have exposed the chinks in the election process itself, particularly, when it comes to giving this right to the huge number of internal migrants.

In a country where internal migration is a reality — those moving to a different place include the daily wage earners as well as the white-collar workers, not to mention the students moving to a different location —such exclusion is baffling to say the least.

The current legal regime regulating voting poses a cruel dilemma before a migrant who is forced to choose between earning her livelihood and exercising her right to vote. Clearly, the regime is out of sync with the economic reality of the nation, where there is a high degree of internal mobility If the degree and range of electoral participation is a key metric to assess the democratic nature, so long as the representation of electorate continues to be skewed in this manner, the country has a long way to go before it assumes the title of the ‘most representative and inclusive democracy’.

An argument raised against the inclusion of internal migrants is that after leaving their home constituency, migrants discontinue their ‘real’ association. When weighed against the proactive measures to grant voting rights to non-resident Indians or external migrants from India, this argument ceases to hold sway. The government has already introduced an amendment to the Representation of the People Act, 1951 to allow proxy voting for overseas voters but no such provisions are in place for the internal migrants.

Logistical issues?

The Election Commission of India (EC) has time and again cited logistical issues as the principal reason for not supporting the inclusion of internal migrants. Clearly, such a view is constitutionally, legally and ethically on shaky grounds. The ECI must be more proactive in extending the right to vote to internal migrants. This can also help infuse a sense of belongingness and political responsibility in the migrant electors.

Extending the right to vote to internal migrants has the potential to alter the nature of our elections and provide the much-needed credibility, uniformity and representativeness to the electoral process, and surely this is where solutions that are offered by Information Technology have huge potential.

We need to ensure that the universal adult franchise provided by the framers of the Constitution does not remain a pious declaration of intent. The ultimate aim was to empower each and every citizen to become a stakeholder in the progress of the nation. Hence, there needs to be a constant review of the inclusive character of our electoral processes in India. Given the significance of this section of voters like every other section, the idea of ‘one nation, one election’ must be deliberated upon in such a way that it empowers the migrant populations.

S. Irudaya Rajan is a professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala; Prashant Singh is an advocate at the Supreme Court of India

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