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The NRI Vote in the 2024 Lok Sabha Elections: How Much Does It Matter?

According to experts, the political leaning of the Indian diaspora has a big influence on voters living in India.

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Last week, nearly 20 cities in the US, including San Francisco, Atlanta, and Texas, saw car rallies urging non-resident Indian (NRI) voters to travel to India and register their support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

With cars adorning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flags and banners – and supporters chanting slogans such as 'Modi Ki Guarantee' and 'Teesri Baar Modi Sarkar' – the rallies were organised by the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP), a group that seeks to promote Modi's leadership among the Indian diaspora in the US, the UK, Australia, among other countries.

According to experts, the political leaning of the Indian diaspora has a big influence on voters living in India.

Indian Americans posing with posters of PM Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath during a car rally in San Francisco on 31 March.

(Photo: X/JayasreeNair)

Similar rallies have been organised in Australia and the UK by the OFBJP to drum up support among the overseas Indians citizens for the Prime Minister.

According to experts, the political leaning of the Indian diaspora has a big influence on voters living in India.

Similarly, the Indian Overseas Congress (IOC), led by entrepreneur Sam Pitroda, said that they are preparing a list of NRIs who are planning to go to India and vote in the elections.

For those who are unable to visit India during this time due to financial constraints or other reasons, IOC officials have been urging them to encourage their family members in India to vote for the Congress in large numbers.

The level of enthusiasm among the Indian diaspora in countries with a large NRI population shows that politics – and especially Indian politics – transcends geographical boundaries.

But how much does the NRI actually matter? And can the NRIs even vote? The Quint explains.

The NRI Vote in the 2024 Lok Sabha Elections: How Much Does It Matter?

  1. 1. Voting Pattern of NRIs Over the Years

    In the backdrop of rising demands from NRIs to exercise their franchise, the Indian Parliament had in 2010 passed the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act permitting overseas Indians to register as voters and cast their votes in person for Assembly and general elections at designated polling stations in India.

    However, despite the landmark law, voting among NRIs has historically been abysmal.

    In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, for instance, there were around 1 lakh NRIs registered to vote, but only around 25,000 made the trip to India to cast their ballots, according to Election Commission of India (ECI) data.

    However, this was a massive improvement from eight NRIs among around 13,000 registered voters who cast their ballots in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls – showing that voter registration and actual voting among NRIs, while still relatively low, is on the rise.

    ECI chief Rajiv Kumar, while announcing the 2024 general election dates on 16 March, had also urged Indians overseas to vote in large numbers.

    "It is certain that the NRIs – more particularly the Indian diaspora in the US – have become highly enthusiastic ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections," Arvind Kumar, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) specialising in US studies, told The Quint.

    "It is going to be historic as a large number of NRI voters have been registering in their respective states, and the pace at which the number of registered voters is increasing has been phenomenal."

    Expand
  2. 2. Why the NRI Vote is Significant... Or Is It Really?

    Despite the rise in NRI voter registration, their vote is pragmatically not likely to count for much in the counting of ballots when compared to the votes which will be cast by crores of people in India. So then why do political parties go all out in vying for NRI support?

    1. Political leaning

    According to experts, this is because the political leaning of the Indian diaspora has a big influence on voters living in India.

    "We in India tend to respect people who go to study or work in the US or Europe, and who eventually settle there as NRIs," Himanshu Roy, professor of political science at JNU, told The Quint.

    "So, the political support extended by NRIs for one or the other party and their voting behaviour have an impact on how the Indian electorate cast their ballots."

    2. Foreign outreach

    Roy said that the higher voter turnout by NRIs over the years might be a result of the "image-building" exercises of PM Modi.

    "Even when he was the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi knew very well that the diaspora has a big impact on electoral politics in India," Roy said. "During that time as well, he used to interact with NRIs whenever he would take trips abroad."

    He further added that Modi's NRI outreach programmes in foreign countries after becoming prime minister – which have been undertaken on a far larger scale than when he was the Gujarat CM – have contributed further to his image.

    The 'Howdy Modi' event in Houston in September 2019 for instance – which saw the presence of PM Modi and the then US President Donald Trump – was attended by 50,000 people and became the largest-ever gathering with a foreign political leader in the US.

    Roy said that among different sections of voters, such events tend to have the biggest impact on the youth – whose importance in Indian electoral politics cannot possibly be overstated as more than 65 percent of India's population is below the age of 35.

    "PM Modi's events or even Rahul Gandhi's lectures at premier US and UK institutes have an impact on students in school and college classrooms," Roy said. "The glamour of Europe and the US impacts the mindset of youngsters since such events look very appealing to them – even more so if they are effectively articulated on social media."

    3. Financial support

    What further makes NRIs a key support base is their caliber to contribute financially to political parties. A key amendment in the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) passed in Parliament in 2018 enabled political parties to receive political donations from NRIs and foreign companies with subsidiary units in India. This gains immense significance especially for Indians living in the US as they have the highest median household income among all immigrant communities in the country.

    Four years before the 2018 amendment, a Delhi court had held both the BJP and the Congress guilty of violating the FCRA by accepting foreign donations.

    4. Optics

    Several other experts, however, believe that rallying NRIs ahead of the election is more about "optics" than actually encouraging them to come to India and vote.

    Rasheed Kidwai, senior journalist and Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, told The Quint: "In 2014, after the Anna Hazare movement and the rise of Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP [Aam Aadmi Party], several NRIs from England, US etc. had registered as voters as there was a lot of euphoria owing to a sense of duty and belonging."

    "Now, after two terms of PM Modi, this euphoria has settled down. But that doesn't mean the commitment of NRIs has reduced. Now it has more to do with resource mobilisation and using social media to promote the activities of a particular party. NRIs – especially those who support the BJP – are extremely proactive in that regard."
    Rasheed Kidwai

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Voting Pattern of NRIs Over the Years

In the backdrop of rising demands from NRIs to exercise their franchise, the Indian Parliament had in 2010 passed the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act permitting overseas Indians to register as voters and cast their votes in person for Assembly and general elections at designated polling stations in India.

However, despite the landmark law, voting among NRIs has historically been abysmal.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, for instance, there were around 1 lakh NRIs registered to vote, but only around 25,000 made the trip to India to cast their ballots, according to Election Commission of India (ECI) data.

However, this was a massive improvement from eight NRIs among around 13,000 registered voters who cast their ballots in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls – showing that voter registration and actual voting among NRIs, while still relatively low, is on the rise.

ECI chief Rajiv Kumar, while announcing the 2024 general election dates on 16 March, had also urged Indians overseas to vote in large numbers.

"It is certain that the NRIs – more particularly the Indian diaspora in the US – have become highly enthusiastic ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections," Arvind Kumar, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) specialising in US studies, told The Quint.

"It is going to be historic as a large number of NRI voters have been registering in their respective states, and the pace at which the number of registered voters is increasing has been phenomenal."

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Why the NRI Vote is Significant... Or Is It Really?

Despite the rise in NRI voter registration, their vote is pragmatically not likely to count for much in the counting of ballots when compared to the votes which will be cast by crores of people in India. So then why do political parties go all out in vying for NRI support?

1. Political leaning

According to experts, this is because the political leaning of the Indian diaspora has a big influence on voters living in India.

"We in India tend to respect people who go to study or work in the US or Europe, and who eventually settle there as NRIs," Himanshu Roy, professor of political science at JNU, told The Quint.

"So, the political support extended by NRIs for one or the other party and their voting behaviour have an impact on how the Indian electorate cast their ballots."

2. Foreign outreach

Roy said that the higher voter turnout by NRIs over the years might be a result of the "image-building" exercises of PM Modi.

"Even when he was the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi knew very well that the diaspora has a big impact on electoral politics in India," Roy said. "During that time as well, he used to interact with NRIs whenever he would take trips abroad."

He further added that Modi's NRI outreach programmes in foreign countries after becoming prime minister – which have been undertaken on a far larger scale than when he was the Gujarat CM – have contributed further to his image.

The 'Howdy Modi' event in Houston in September 2019 for instance – which saw the presence of PM Modi and the then US President Donald Trump – was attended by 50,000 people and became the largest-ever gathering with a foreign political leader in the US.

Roy said that among different sections of voters, such events tend to have the biggest impact on the youth – whose importance in Indian electoral politics cannot possibly be overstated as more than 65 percent of India's population is below the age of 35.

"PM Modi's events or even Rahul Gandhi's lectures at premier US and UK institutes have an impact on students in school and college classrooms," Roy said. "The glamour of Europe and the US impacts the mindset of youngsters since such events look very appealing to them – even more so if they are effectively articulated on social media."

3. Financial support

What further makes NRIs a key support base is their caliber to contribute financially to political parties. A key amendment in the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) passed in Parliament in 2018 enabled political parties to receive political donations from NRIs and foreign companies with subsidiary units in India. This gains immense significance especially for Indians living in the US as they have the highest median household income among all immigrant communities in the country.

Four years before the 2018 amendment, a Delhi court had held both the BJP and the Congress guilty of violating the FCRA by accepting foreign donations.

4. Optics

Several other experts, however, believe that rallying NRIs ahead of the election is more about "optics" than actually encouraging them to come to India and vote.

Rasheed Kidwai, senior journalist and Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, told The Quint: "In 2014, after the Anna Hazare movement and the rise of Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP [Aam Aadmi Party], several NRIs from England, US etc. had registered as voters as there was a lot of euphoria owing to a sense of duty and belonging."

"Now, after two terms of PM Modi, this euphoria has settled down. But that doesn't mean the commitment of NRIs has reduced. Now it has more to do with resource mobilisation and using social media to promote the activities of a particular party. NRIs – especially those who support the BJP – are extremely proactive in that regard."
Rasheed Kidwai

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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