The Lok Sabha, last week, passed a bill to amend the Representation of the People Act, 1951 and enable Indians living abroad to appoint a proxy to cast their vote in elections to Parliament and state assemblies.

The bill was introduced in the lower house of Parliament by Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who claimed many non-resident Indians had complained that they were unable to vote in the elections. While the amendment bill has yet to be tabled in the Rajya Sabha, it has raised concerns among experts and lawmakers. Political parties, including the Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party, Shiv Sena, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Biju Janata Dal, objected to the bill, saying it’s provisions are liable to misuse.

Allaying their fears, Prasad said, according to a report in the Indian Express, that concerns raised by the members of parliament can be addressed while framing the rules. “Let’s trust the NRIs (non-resident Indians) about the proxies and not deride their contribution.”

As per current rules, overseas Indians can exercise their right to electoral franchise provided they are registered in their constituency and physically present there on polling day. The number of such voters on the electoral rolls is 24,507—a minuscule proportion of the Indian electorate.

Proxy Voting Concerns

The Ministry of External Affairs pegs the number of overseas Indians at over 3 crore. It’s not clear how many of these people would be eligible to vote.

SK Mendiratta, a former legal counsel to the Election Commission of India for over five decades said the proposal was a positive move to “enable legitimate voters to exercise their franchise”.

Why should they (NRIs) be deprived of their right to vote when the Constitution gives every citizen above the age of 18 this right.

SK Mendiratta, Former Legal Counsel, Election Commission 

But permitting a proxy to cast a vote on behalf of an NRI has raised concerns regarding the secrecy of the ballot. “The secrecy of the vote will be lost,” former Chief Election Commissioner TS Krishnamurthy told BloombergQuint in an interview.

The law protects the privacy of a voter. The amendment would violate the secrecy of the voter’s choice.

TS Krishnamurthy, Former CEC

Odisha lawmaker and Biju Janata Dal leader Kalikesh Singh Deo underscored the impact NRI votes could have constituency-wise.“Let’s not forget there are 3.19 crore NRIs, which means you can have one lakh people in each of the 310 registered constituencies.”

Deo raised concerns over the implementation of the proposal, such as influence over voting and its monitoring. He also called for scrutiny by the Election Commission.

“If the voting is influenced or if there are other discrepancies as per the People’s Representative Act, how will the Election Commission monitor this outside India?”

Deo also called for a mechanism to ensure that the non-resident Indian’s choice to vote is in line with that of the proxy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves as he leaves Wembley Stadium in London after addressing the Indian community on Friday night. (PTI Photo by Vijay Verma)

Deo linked the bill to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach to the NRI community during his foreign visits, where he has often addressed huge crowds of Indians.

I think the government has brought this bill to capitalise on the massive overseas campaigns by Prime Minister Modi, but they haven’t thought it through.

Kalikesh Singh Deo, Leader, BJD

Why this special proxy provision for NRIs, asked Jagdeep Chhokar, founder of Association of Democratic Reforms, an advocacy group that works for voter rights. He flagged the inability of the crores of Indian migrants to express their franchise. Several poor migrant workers, Chhokar said, are unable to vote because the journey to home would result in loss of wages.

“We're concerned about 3.1 crore people who have left the country of their own accord but there are 40 crore people who are in the country and who are deprived of this right to vote,” Chhokar said. “How about mitigating the difficulties of those living in India?”

Watch the full debate here.

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