By Prarthana Mitra
To enable the large Indian diaspora to take part in the electoral process, the government moved the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill 2017 for consideration and passage in the lower house on Thursday. Under the bill which was passed by a voice vote, non-resident Indians (NRIs) overseas can cast their vote in Indian elections by proxy voting. According to a recent estimate, around 3.10 NRIs currently reside in countries across the globe.
One Indian two votes?
Recognising their rights to participate and vote, NRIs can now appoint a proxy voter who will cast the vote in their stead. This privilege was extended only to service professional serving abroad so far, while others were entitled to vote only in the constituencies where they were registered.
Although it directly contradicts a basic tenet laid down by the Constitution, to allow one Indian one vote (besides suspending the significance of the secret ballot), Prem Singh Chandumajra (SAD) said that the proposal would allow the NRIs to remain connected with the country.
Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad further added that in order to respect their achievements abroad, it was necessary to replace the expensive and unfeasible system which requires NRIs to come home and vote, with the next best alternative, ie, proxy voting.
The new bill also proposes to replace the term ‘wife’ with ‘spouse’, thus making the provision gender neutral, and allowing a female army officer’s spouse to be enrolled as a service voter as well.
“Proxy is a legal word”
Responding to objections raised on the floor of the house, Prasad said, “Let us trust the NRIs about proxies.” He added that the government will ensure that voting by proxy is not misused, with adequate rules and regulations. On asked about extending similar rights to migrant workers working abroad, Prasad said that it will happen eventually, acknowledging that they should be allowed to vote as well.
AAP’s Dharam Vira Gandhi and AIADMK’s R Gopalakrishnan were against proxy voting as it could lead to misuse and vote trading. Gopalakrishnan added that electronic voting should be allowed so that the voters could cast their vote directly without a proxy playing any role. Rejecting alternatives like postal ballots or e-voting, Prasad cited security concerns involved in implementing such systems in largely populated countries.
Mohammad Salim (CPI-M) said that it was an important bill and should be forwarded to the Standing Committee for further scrutiny. He also raised a legitimate point, demanding foreign missions to stop distributing literature that swings NRI votes towards the ruling party.
The RSS is very active abroad, especially in the USA where millions of Indians reside. In a recent book on the operations of the right-wing group overseas, authors Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle noted that besides fostering religious long-distance nationalism, some of its members abroad directly abet the “political ambitions of the BJP”. Several dozen overseas Indian professionals, for example, “went back to India to provide IT expertise to the 201314 Modi parliamentary campaign,” according to Scroll. By empowering this massive pool of voters, BJP may be leveraging the vote bank in the run up to the 2019 polls.
Prarthana Mitra is staff writer at Qrius