Given the large NRI community dispersed globally, this move will undoubtedly have an impact on the country’s electoral politics in significant ways.The Union government has agreed, “in letter and spirit”, to implement the Supreme Court direction and the Election Commission’s recommendation to allow Non-Resident Indians to vote from overseas through postal ballots. Given the large NRI community dispersed globally, this move will undoubtedly have an impact on the country’s electoral politics in significant ways.
Parliament passed the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act in 2010 to introduce Section 20A that enables a person who is a citizen of India, and is away from his/ her ordinary residence in India for employment, education or other reasons, to be eligible to be registered as a voter in the constituency mentioned in his/ her Indian passport: before that amendment, only “ordinary residents” could cast their vote.
Although the 2010 amendment intended to include NRI participation in national politics, Section 20A had required NRIs to be physically present in their respective constituencies at the time of elections. Making it impractical for voters, this requirement defeated the intention of the legislature. A petition was filed in the Supreme Court praying that Section 20A of the Act be read down so as to allow NRIs to vote from abroad without having to be present in India. The petition argued that the provision was in violation of Article 14 of the Constitution to the extent that it impliedly treated persons on a different footing based on economic classifications. The Supreme Court and the government agreed with this contention without hesitation.
The traditional argument against such external voting has been that only citizens who are present in the territory and affected by the consequences of their vote should be entitled to vote. As per this argument, since NRIs lacked sound knowledge about domestic conditions, they would be irresponsible in their electoral choices. But this argument is fast being disproved by empirical evidence. With the rapid increase in cross-border migrations, the concept of nationhood and political membership is increasingly being decoupled from territorial locations. India’s move towards enabling voting from overseas is an instance of a larger global trend towards increased citizen participation.
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an inter-governmental organization, lists different voting methods that can be employed, such as “personal voting”, where voters can cast their vote at diplomatic missions abroad; “postal ballot method”, where votes are sent by regular post; “proxy vote” and “electronic voting”. From amongst these alternatives, the government has decided to employ the postal ballot route that the electoral system already uses for absentee-voters on official duty.