Sunday, 10 January 2010

The NRI Vote

This post is likely to cost me a few NRI friends. It could have been relatives too but you can't lose relatives; you can only lose contact with them.

I am pretty worked up about the move on voting rights for NRIs. A Bill to amend the Representation of People Act to allow this was moved in 2006 and the standing committee of Parliament made certain observations. The Bill has remained stuck because of that.

I have had an e-exchange with my friend Krishna Srinivasan, who works for the IMF, on the subject. "If we are still citizens, why should we not be allowed to vote?" asks Krishna. He went on to say, "voting is a fundamental right for every citizen. No reason why they should be prevented from voting just because they relocate overseas for a few years. As long as a NRI remains an Indian citizen, she/he should be allowed to vote."

Krishna certainly has a point. I was worried that the Bill would allow even NRIs who had taken citizenship of other countries to vote. Fortunately, it does not - the right to vote is not being conferred on even those with Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) card.

My issue is not about people who have relocated for a few years but those people who have gone abroad with the intention of settling down there and the only reason they are still Indian citizens is that they cannot get citizenship of the other country before a stipulated time period. Technically, yes, they are Indian citizens but are they Indians at heart? Speaking Indian languages, being part of the Indian community in the other country, sticking to Indian rituals, food and dress, visiting India every year, investing in Indian businesses etc doesn't count. Are they involved with the country in the way that all of us who choose to live here and put up with the trials and tribulations of living in India are? Should people who chose not to endure this country with all its hardships be allowed to determine who rules all those who chose to do so? That is my fundamental question.

My fear is that the amendment Bill seeks to allow such people to vote. The amendment Bill proposes that "a person absenting himself from his place of ordinary residence owing to his employment, education, or otherwise, outside India, whether temporarily or not, shall not, by reason thereof, cease to be ordinarily resident in India." Note the words, "temporarily or not". That means even those who have gone permanently will be allowed to vote because they have still retained their Indian citizenship.

I think that is unfair. NRIs don't pay taxes in India (some probably do) so why should they be allowed to determine the government? No taxation without representation should surely also mean no representation without taxation.

There are a whole lot of practical problems with the proposal, many of which have been highlighted in the standing committee report on the Bill. Apparently, conferring voting right on someone also confers on that person the right to stand for election. Now that is worrying.

The biggest problem, according to me, is - how are NRIs going to judge which party/candidate is best for the job? Can they make an informed choice the way a voter living here can? (Sure, even people here don't make informed choices, but that is another issue). The move will also skew the playing field against the smaller parties and independents who may not have the resources to reach out to NRI voters, thus giving the big parties with a higher profile an unfair advantage. I am worried about how some parties are going about studiously wooing the NRIs. I cannot believe it has to do with wanting to keep them engaged with India and its development. It’s about engaging with their particular brand of politics. It will be easier to fool NRIs, in spite of the information and technology revolution.

There was something else in my exchange with Krishna that disturbed me. He said allowing NRIs to vote "will, hopefully, contribute towards improving governance". Later he elaborated (in response to a riposte from me) that "I would like to believe that many/most NRIs would not be swayed by the populist measures used by politicians to get votes. This would, hopefully, help elect the right candidate and not the one with most money/influence, which in turn would help improve governance."

My riposte had been that the white man's burden is now morphing into the NRI burden: these desis back home don't know how to vote the right people, so we NRIs need to step in and help them improve governance etc. But Krishna's counter is similar to that smug middle class attitude all of us have - the poor vote depending on how much they are paid; it is us educated people who vote responsibly. But as I have pointed out in an earlier post, this is a myth. The middle class voters are as prone to being bribed as the poor. Not in terms of cash or liquor or whatever, but in terms of benefits - protection for encroachments, continuation of undeserved subsidies etc. What is the guarantee that NRIs won't have their own narrow agendas?

Not giving NRIs voting rights will certainly affect all those who have gone abroad purely temporarily - people on foreign assignments or jobs with international organisations or multinational corporations, students who may later choose to come back, people who have only gone to earn money for their families back home (like the poor people working in the Gulf who repatriate all their earnings), people like my friend Krishna. If some way can be found to define `temporarily' in the amendment and allow these genuine people to vote, sure go ahead. But if that cannot be done, I am afraid these people will just have to wait till they return in order to vote. We cannot allow people who have no stake in the country and don't understand or want to endure its problems to determine our governments.
P.S. I am giving a link to a summary of the Bill and the standing committee recommendations.

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