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NRI Voters and the Trouble With Indian Elections

By News

Illustration by Catherine Cao.

This February, the Election Commission of India clarified that Non-Resident Indian (NRI) voters have not been extended the right to cast their votes online in the upcoming national elections. According to estimates from the Ministry of External Affairs of India, there are about 31 million NRIs living in different countries across the world. Currently, NRIs can vote, but only in-person. They must register online for their Voter ID, go to their constituency back in India with the original passport issued to them when they had moved abroad, and cast their vote. However, to be eligible to vote, they must possess a valid Indian passport. And most importantly, they must be at least 18 years of age as on January 1st of the year in which the electoral roll is published.

Many of the Indian undergraduates at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) come to the United States when they are too young to vote in Indian elections. And once they are of voting age, many aren’t able to go home and vote because the elections are usually held around early April and late May, when these students are busy preparing for their final critiques and year end submissions. This year’s election is scheduled to be held in 7 phases, beginning on 11th of April, when preparation for finals is at peak at SAIC. The last phase happens on 19th of May, right after the semester ends, when international students are about to leave the United States for the summer.  

Amay Kataria, a second-year SAIC graduate student in the Art and Technology department tells F Newsmagazine, “I feel I have no say,” adding that he feels “disconnected from the Indian political system and my country because I won’t be able to exercise my rights in this election term as well.” The 2019 Indian general election overlaps with his college schedule and graduation ceremony. Having left India at the age of 18 to pursue higher education, Amay has not been able to vote in the elections in the past 11 years. Amay adds, “If there was a proxy system of voting in place for NRIs like me, who may not be able to fly back home during the election season, we would feel more included and have our say in our country’s progress.”

Proxy voting is a system where a vote is cast by one person as a representative of another, when the latter is not present in their constituency during the election period. In India, currently this system is in place only for the Service Personnel, like Armed Force Services in India. The 2017 Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill may allow NRI voters to avail the proxy voting service. This Bill has passed in the Lok Sabha — House of the People — but is yet to be signed by the Rajya Sabha — Council of States — after which the provisions in this Bill could be enacted. This would permit an NRI to choose an adult relative or friend who is registered in their constituency as their proxy. The proxy can then cast the NRI citizen’s vote on their behalf.

In an interview with the Arabian Stories, Dr. Shashi Tharoor — an Indian Parliamentarian and Chairman of Indian External Affairs Ministry Standing Committee — said that even if the bill does pass in the Rajya Sabha, NRIs would not have been able vote in the 2019 general elections. “The government would have had to frame the various rules and procedures to oversee proxy voting,” Tharoor said. “That would have been a time-consuming process and therefore, I do not believe that they would have been ready to implement it for the 2019 elections.”

An SAIC Liberal Arts faculty member from India, who chose to remain anonymous, feels skeptical about the proxy system. They have been in the United States since 2011 and told F News, “I would be more comfortable voting in person — maybe at a nearby Indian embassy in the city — where I could physically cast a vote without worrying about how my proxy vote in India could be manipulated by another person.”

In the last general election to choose a new Indian government, about 830 million citizens were eligible to vote and more than 550 million people cast their ballots. This term, election authorities speculate the number will swell to 900 million. There are about 33 million Non-Resident Indians who can only cast their votes if they fly back home.

The faculty member at SAIC also feels that of the many Indians who live abroad, few permanently return to India or plan to anytime soon. Many left India when the country had very different cultural, political, and social landscapes than it does now. With outdated ideas of the contemporary political scene in India, the faculty member adds that it can be a major drawback for NRIs to impose “idealizations of the past through their votes.”

Sujit Joshi, a graduate student in the SAIC’s Designed Objects department, feels the same way. “The people who do not fly back to India that often would not necessarily have the context of current societal situations and political representatives to decide for their constituencies,”he says. However, he believes that an online voting system at a nearby Indian embassy might be an effective way to ensure that NRIs — who frequently travel back to India — can exercise their rights.

Currently, flying back to India is the only option for NRIs who are registered to vote. According to the electoral roll data of 2014, only 11,846 of the estimated 10 million NRIs were accounted as “overseas electors,” or NRIs who go home and vote.  In the last three years, the number of overseas voters has jumped to 24,348 — almost twofold — though it is still a minority of the total NRI population. With current estimation of the NRI population at 31 million people, many look to the Indian government to address this growing issue.

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