In a widely anticipated move, the Indian government earlier this month announced the guidelines that would give an estimated 5mn Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) living in various countries the right to contest and vote in the Lok Sabha (lower house in the Indian Parliament) and state assembly elections.
The decision has given the Election Commission of India the go-ahead for enrolling NRI citizens in the voters’ list. According to rules framed by the Ministry of Law and Justice, NRIs will have to enrol their names in the voters’ list of the constituency mentioned as the place of residence in their passports. NRIs will be required to be physically present in their constituency to cast their votes.
Muscat Daily spoke with the Indian Ambassador to Oman H E Anil Wadhwa to get an overview on the decision and the role the Indian Embassy will play in
facilitating the move.
As per the new guidelines, NRIs have to be physically present in their home constituencies to cast their votes. Is that practical?
It would be, of course, an ideal situation if NRIs could vote from wherever they are staying. But this is a step by step process. First, we have to start this process by asking the NRIs to come to India and vote in their own constituencies. Then, if this experiment succeeds, we will have to extend this somehow to people living outside as well.
Don’t you think this will keep a vast majority of NRIs out of the voting process? Some say the move will benefit only the affluent.
You are right. Not everybody can go back home and vote because most people can’t afford to go back at the time of elections. However, we have taken the first step. The next step would be to involve everybody.
Can’t the Indian missions abroad help in facilitating the voting process for NRIs?
India is not like any other country which has a small number of people living outside. For instance, there are over 573,000 NRIs living in Oman. You can imagine the processes and logistics to be put in place if they are expected to vote in Oman. There are no ready solutions to these things. They (the Indian government) have started a process and they’ll have to keep refining it over the next few years.
What role will the embassy play in registration of NRIs in the electoral lists?
The only thing that is required from the embassy is the attestation of documents and forms. The applicants can then send the forms themselves to their respective constituencies directly.
We are expecting the number of attestations to go up. Most of our missions are outsourcing this work to deal with the numbers. Indian Embassy in Muscat is also in the process of doing this. There are still some years left before the next general election in 2014, so there’s plenty of time.
Why can’t the Indian government use the nation’s IT prowess to reach out to more NRIs?
This is, of course, one of the proposals made to the Election Commission of India. However, they have rejected it this time because they feel that it’s not foolproof enough at the moment. The system does not exist for them to guarantee that it will work in a fair manner.
Even then you will have to address the problem of how many people outside have access to Internet. If you look at the economically weaker sections of the population that work abroad, they are not on computers. As I said, it’s a step by step process. You go from one step to another and keep improving the system.
Do you think that with the right to contest elections, NRIs will feel more empowered and their political aspirations will find an outlet?
Yes, I think it’s a good thing that people who live outside can also go back and contest. This whole process of involving NRIs is only going to enrich our electorate. We’ve a rich community of NRIs across the world who have different influences and different impressions. They’ve seen the world outside and seen how other countries work. They can transport some of these ideas back home. The latest move will only add to the democratic process.
Some NRIs propose to have reserved seats for NRI candidates.
That’s debatable. What could be the basis for such reservation? If that be the case then in every state of India one will have to find reserved constituencies.Already, the trend is not to have reservations in constituencies as much as possible.
Reservations do not allow certain parts of the electorate to contest the election. Right now, I don’t think it’s a feasible idea. In future, when this whole idea matures, then the possibility of NRI constituencies could be looked into as an extention of the idea.
Considering that India is the largest democracy of the world and has championed the cause of democratic ideals, why did it take so long for the country to give the much-deserved franchise rights to NRIs?
In our system, it is the parliament that takes a call on such issues. There were many proposals earlier but the parliament was not in favour. So it’s our own elected representatives who have a difference of opinion.