No Vote For Pardesis
Romit Maulik, 23, comes from Mumbai, but has been living in the United States of America for the past year. Pursuing a Masters in Mechanical Engineering from the Oklahoma State University, Romit is a worried young man these days. His concerns stem not from academic demands or his ever-growing bills but from the realisation that he won’t manage living up to what he thinks is his duty – to vote in next year’s General Elections. Romit is not alone in this. Lal Gujjar – resident of Alwar district of Rajasthan – is confronted by a dilemma very similar in nature. Gujjar works in a non-descript dhabaon the very busy Aurobindo Road of the capital and manages to save around Rs 1500 a month. He’s eager to vote in the Assembly Elections scheduled for December in his home state of Rajasthan, but knows it is perhaps not practically feasible to make the 400 kilometres to and fro journey. Like Romit and Gujjar, there are scores of Indian citizens – young and old – who want to exercise their adult franchise but are crippled by logistical hurdles.
While there have been many amendments in the Representation of Peoples Act, 1950 to facilitate easier and wider electoral participation, casting a vote is still far from seamless. For someone like Gujjar – part of the huge unorganised workforce of the country – proving “ordinary citizenship” of Delhi is a process both tedious and fruitless. Gujjar told me that work has taken him to as many as eight cities across the country in the last six years. Since he’s not stayed at one place for more than eight months ever after he left home at the age of 19, he never bothered to get his name shifted from the electoral rolls of the constituency back home. Although one could contest that there does exist provisions within the framework of the People’s Representation Act, 1950 that allows Gujjar to exercise his adult franchise, the process of shifting your name from one constituency to another is a long and tedious process. An ordeal that makes very little sense for someone like Gujjar with no Internet access and little time to pursue this change. Also, Gujjar would have little interest or stake in the political dynamics of a place he’s lived in for such a short span to cast a vote in his new place of residence.
The Election Commission of India has provided for the option of a postal ballot which allows people to cast a vote through the post. Yet, this postal ballot can’t be used by Gujjar to vote for the constituency and candidate he feels and cares for. This is because the Election Commission currently restricts the privilege to a few select special categories of citizens. In its current form, the postal ballot option is reserved for government servants posted abroad as part of embassies, members of military and paramilitary forces serving outside the state and officials on poll duty. Of course, the President, the Vice-President, governors of states and ministers of the Union or of states are eligible too.
In Romit’s case, his concerns are not new and have been voiced by the non-resident Indian (NRI) community before. NRIs were completely barred from taking part in both the Assembly and the General elections till as late as the turn of the 21st century. In 2010, an amendment in the People Representative Act, 1950 enabled a “person who is a citizen of India and who has not acquired the citizenship of any other country” to vote. The amendment, though a step in the right direction, comes across as more of a ceremonial gesture and serves little purpose. The amendment merely gives voting rights to NRIs but does very little to deal with the logistics of going about it as it contains no provision for online or postal ballots. The rule as it stands now requires an individual to be physically present in the electoral booth of the constituency he is enrolled in as a voter.
NRIs have often expressed anguish over the mandatory physical presence clause the amendment carries, but the Election Commission of India has chosen not to address the issue in any of its many recent electoral reforms. The rule in its current form is therefore unlikely to inspire too many NRIs to come out and vote. Least of all someone like Romit whose modest student budget would hardly allow him a trip back home just for the purpose of voting.
The turnout in terms of percentage for the last General Elections in 2009 was 58.19 percent. Which means only a little more than half of the total eligible population participated in what is often touted as the greatest democratic exercise in the world. Surely, reaching out to the many Romits and Gujjars the country has and giving them a voice by allowing them to vote without all the hassles that punctuate the process now would be good for the country. That would allow the world’s biggest democracy to be one of the most representative as well.