How NRIs Can Play ‘Kingmaker’ In Indian Polls Via Postal Ballot

Here’s how around 1 crore eligible NRI voters could tilt the scales in a closely contested election.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
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The Election Commission has conveyed to the central government that it is “technically and administratively ready” to extend the Postal Ballot System to NRI voters for state elections due in 2021 – Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry on a pilot basis.

The proposal may get implemented first for voters based in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Germany, France, and South Africa.

It fulfils a long-standing demand of the NRI community to ease the process of their participation in the electoral process back home.

Current Voting Process & No. Of Registered Voters

Currently NRIs can vote in person in their constituencies (place of residence mentioned in passport) due to which this has failed to take off. Only 1.18 lakh such voters have registered in India, and merely 25,000 had cast their votes in 2019 general elections.

5 states in the south and west of India account for 93 percent of total overseas registered voters. Kerala, which goes to polls in 2021, has three-fourth of such voters.

How NRIs Can Play ‘Kingmaker’ In Indian Polls Via Postal Ballot
(Graphics: Kamran Akhter / The Quint)

Significant NRI Population & Potential To Play ‘Kingmaker’

According to estimates, there are around 1.3 crore Indians residing abroad, out of which around 1 crore could be above 18 years of age and eligible to vote.

10 countries account for 87 percent of the NRI population. The Gulf countries alone account for roughly 1 crore NRI population. The USA, UK and Singapore account for approximately 20 lakh NRIs.

These 1 crore voters account for more than 1 percent of the current voting population of India and could tilt the scales in favour of an alliance / party in case of a tight contest.

In 1998 and the 2004 general elections, the difference between BJP+ and INC+ was less than 1 percent vote share. In such an election, these voters could play the role of kingmakers.

UP Has Overtaken Punjab & Kerala In Migration

The state-wise population of NRIs is not available. Initially, people migrating from India for jobs abroad belonged mostly to Punjab, Kerala and Gujarat.

In recent years, for which data is available, Uttar Pradesh has overtaken Kerala and Punjab, and now sends the largest number of workers abroad.

In 2012, 1.9 lakh workers migrated from Uttar Pradesh followed by Kerala (98,000), Andhra Pradesh (92,000), Tamil Nadu (78,000), Bihar (84,000), Rajasthan (50,000) and Punjab and West Bengal (both around 37,000).

Gulf Countries Not Part Of Pilot Postal Ballot Process

In the first phase, NRIs from Gulf countries will be excluded from the project. In these countries, the majority of the Indian diaspora is from the southern part of India. BJP’s performance in the general elections is the weakest in this part of India. It failed to make a significant mark in Kerala, Andhra and Tamil Nadu.

Is there a political motive behind this move (to initially exclude NRIs from the Gulf)? In my opinion, not really. The BJP is already weak in these states.

Even if these voters come and vote for other parties, it would not materially impact the fortunes and position of the BJP in the South India in the state elections in 2021, and nor would it in the next general elections of 2024.

In the state elections of 2021, since these voters are not allowed to vote, it would not have any impact on the results.

Challenges Ahead For Postal Ballot System

The External Affairs Ministry highlighted the procedural and logistical issues to justify excluding Gulf countries in the first phase. It has expressed reservations over seeking permission in non-democratic nations to facilitate postal voting for Indian citizens living there.

The other reasons could be the sheer size of voters in these countries, to the tune of roughly 70 lakhs, similar to the voting population of J&K, Uttarakhand.

Significant resources in terms of manpower and money are required for this exercise. The embassies simply don’t have enough staff to do this, as the mission is required to hand over the ballot papers to the voters, attest the self-declaration form and then dispatch all the ballots to the election officer concerned.

Why The BJP Has Done Everything To Woo NRIs

Both the Congress as well as the BJP have NRI / Overseas Indian cells and they regularly interact with them through these forums. BJP’s election campaigns have also seen the involvement of large numbers of expatriates.

After coming to power, BJP has made sustained efforts to woo the NRI community, literally treating them as a vote bank.

The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, Modi’s interactions with the NRI community during state visits, providing PIO cardholders the same status as OCI cardholders are some of the steps taken by the NDA government to charm the Indian diaspora.

Apart from ideological moorings, NRIs normally depend upon the government of the day in their home countries for framing favourable tax laws, visa and immigration rules, and may be tempted to back the party in power, thus providing it an edge in a very close election.

The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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