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Baba’s Explainer – Indian Diaspora and Remote Voting

  • IASbaba
  • November 7, 2022
  • 0
Governance, Indian Polity & Constitution
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Syllabus

  • GS-2: Indian Foreign Policy, Indian diaspora.
  • GS-2: Fundamental Rights

Context: On the assurance of the Attorney General that the Centre was looking at ways to facilitate distance voting for non-resident Indians (NRIs), mainly migrant labourers, the Supreme Court on November 1 disposed of a batch of petitions seeking remote voting for NRIs.

  • The Bench led by Chief Justice U. U. Lalit said that the purpose of the petitions had been served as the government had introduced a Bill to facilitate proxy voting by overseas electors.
  • The Bill, however, lapsed and a pilot project for postal voting is yet to see the light of day.
What is considered as Indian Diaspora?
  • The Diaspora encompasses a group of people who can either trace their origins to India or who are Indian citizens living abroad, either temporarily or permanently.
  • The Indian migration began in large numbers during the British rule as indentured labourers to former colonies like Fiji, Kenya and Malaysia.
  • It continued in the post-independence period with Indians from different social strata moving to countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, and Gulf countries.
  • Indian Diaspora includes Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) and Overseas Citizens of India (OCI).
  • PIO and OCI card holders were merged under OCI category in 2015.

Non-Resident Indian

  • An Indian citizen who is ordinarily residing outside India and holds an Indian Passport.
  • A person is considered NRI if She is not in India for 182 days or more during the financial year Or;
  • If he/she is in India for less than 365 days during the 4 years preceding that year and less than 60 days in that year.

Overseas Citizen of India

  • A person with OCI status is not an Indian citizen. The person does not have voting rights in India, nor can contest elections or hold any constitutional office.
  • An Overseas Citizen of India is however entitled to some benefits such as a multiple-entry, multi-purpose life-long visa to visit India.
  • They are exempted from police reporting for any length of stay in the country.
  • They are also granted all rights in parity with NRIs except, the right to acquisition of agricultural or plantation properties.
What is the significance of Indian Diaspora?
Economic Front ·       Indian diaspora is one of the richest minorities in many developed countries, this helped them to lobby for favourable terms regarding India’s interests. For example, at 3 million, Indians may number just 1% of the U.S. population, but they are the most educated and richest minority.

·       The migration of less-skilled labour (especially to West Asia) has also helped in bringing down disguised unemployment in India.

·       In general, migrants’ remittances have positive systemic effects on the balance of payments. Remittances of $70-80 billion help to bridge a wider trade deficit.

·       By weaving a web of cross-national networks, the migrant workers facilitated the flow of tacit information, commercial and business ideas, and technologies into India.

Political Front:

 

·       Many people of Indian origin hold top political positions in many countries, in the US itself they are now a significant part of Republicans and Democrats, as well as the government. Ex: Kamala Harris who is the Vice-President of USA

·       The political clout of India’s diaspora can be estimated by the fact, the role it played in turning around doubting legislators into voting for the India-U.S. nuclear deal.

Foreign Policy Front ·       Indian diaspora is not just a part of India’s soft power, but a fully transferable political vote bank as well.

·       Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reception at Madison Square Garden is a way of thanking the Indian-American community members who played a big part in his electronic campaign and election funding.

·       The institutionalisation of “diaspora diplomacy” is a distinct indication for the fact that a country’s diaspora community has become considerably more important as a subject of interest for foreign policy and associated government activities.

How has India's Diaspora Policy evolved over the years?
  • India was initially sensitive to the view that championing the cause of overseas Indians might offend the host countries, who should be fully responsible for their welfare and security.  Dealing with diaspora directly might have been misconstrued as interference in internal affairs of a sovereign nation.
  • India’s foreign policy in the 1950s was structured as a model of non-interference whenever the emigrant Indians got into trouble in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, etc. This was because Nehru was of the view that such an action would be considered as interference in internal matters of Nation.
  • However, Rajiv Gandhi was the first Prime Minister who changed the diaspora policy in the 1980s by inviting Indians abroad, regardless of their nationality, to participate in nation-building, much like the overseas Chinese communities.
  • Then under, Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government after 2000, there came a host of positive measures such as a separate Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Person of Indian Origin (PIO) Card, Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award, Overseas Citizen of India Card, NRI funds and voting rights for Indian citizens abroad.
  • Furthermore, in 2015, the Ministry of External Affairs launched the e-migrate system that requires all foreign employers to register in the database.
  • The current government has launched a scheme called ‘Know India Program’ (KIP) in 2016 for diaspora engagement which familiarizes Indian-origin youth (18-30 years) with their Indian roots and contemporary India.
What is the size of the NRI electorate and why it necessary to provide them voting rights?
  • According to estimates, India has the largest diaspora population, with nearly 1.35 crore non-resident Indians spread across the globe. Many of them are in the Gulf countries, the U.S. and the U.K.
  • In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 99,844 NRIs registered and 25,606 electors turned up to vote, with a majority hailing from Kerala (25,534). In the 2014 Parliamentary elections, 11,846 NRIs registered and only a fraction turned up to vote. Of the registered overseas electors, 90% belonged to Kerala. Others registered are from Gujarat, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu among other States.
  • NRIs should not be deprived of the franchise because they exercised their right to freely practise a profession or trade.
    • Other democracies allow absentee voting if overseas electors are not abroad for a specified period and/or if they mention an “intent to return”.
  • A major reason for low NRI registration and voting despite India amending the Representation of the People Act in 2010 to enable eligible NRIs who had stayed abroad beyond six months to vote is the condition that they have to visit the polling booth in person.
What has the government done so far?
  • Since the in-person proviso of the amended Act discouraged many, petitions were filed in the Supreme Court between 2013 and 2014 by NRIs.
  • The Election Commission of India (ECI) formed a Committee in 2014 on the Court’s direction to explore the options for overseas electors.
  • The committee narrowed it down to two remote voting options — e-postal ballot and proxy voting.
  • The Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) involves the NRI voter sending an application to the returning officer in person or online.
  • The returning officer will send the ballot electronically. The voter can then register their mandate on the ballot printout and send it back with an attested declaration. The voter will either send the ballot by ordinary post or drop it at an Indian Embassy where it would be segregated and posted. Proxy voting, meanwhile, enables voters to appoint proxies to vote on their behalf.
  • Both ETPBS and proxy voting are currently available to only service voters, like those in the armed forces or diplomatic missions. In its report, the ECI said proxy voting would be a “convenient” and “doable” method.
  • All political parties consulted by the ECI except the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were against proxy voting as they felt it could never be guaranteed that the proxy would vote as per the actual voter’s choice.
  • In 2017, however, the government introduced a Bill to amend the Representation of People Act to remove the condition of in-person voting for NRIs and enable them to vote through proxies. The Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha in 2018 but never introduced in the Upper House, eventually lapsing with the 16th Lok Sabha.
  • In 2020, the ECI wrote to the Law Ministry that it was “technically and administratively ready” to facilitate ETPBS for NRIs in the 2021 Assembly elections in five States but the External Affairs Ministry flagged “huge logistical challenges” relating to identity verification of voters, absence of polling agents, the burden on embassy staff etc.
What next?
  • Besides the government’s assurance in Court, the Law Ministry in March said that the Centre was exploring the possibility of allowing online voting for NRIs. The Chief Election Commissioner has stated that ETPBS for NRIs was being contemplated.
  • It is yet to be seen, however, if any of the remote voting options materialise before the 2024 general elections.

Main Practice Question: Why is it necessary to provide voting rights to NRIs? What are challenges in providing remote voting for NRIs?

Note: Write answer his question in the comment section.


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