Cabinet clears proxy voting for NRIs: Centre's move is likely to change the political landscape in Kerala

Overseas Indians were elated when the Manmohan Singh government conceded their long-standing demand for the right to vote in the elections in the country in 2010. But their jubilation faded when Election Commission subsequently made their physical presence mandatory in their respective constituencies at the time of the polls to cast their votes

Non-resident Indians (NRIs) ignored the call of Election Commission to enrol their names in the voters list online. Only 11,844 out of an estimated 100 million NRIs across the world registered their names at the time of 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Of these, very few travelled to the country to exercise their franchise.

NRIs could not use their long-fought right because it was not practical and affordable for them to make an exclusive visit to the country at the time of elections. The Narendra Modi government has sought to solve this problem by allowing NRIs to cast their votes from their overseas location through ‘proxy’.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

However, expats from Kerala, who were one of the first to demand voting rights and the largest among overseas Indians to enrol their names in the voters’ list, are not enthused by the new voting method approved by the Union Cabinet on Thursday. A cross section of the Non-Resident Keralites (NRKs) contacted by Firstpost has expressed apprehension that the facility could be misused.

“I am living with my family in Dubai. If I appoint a distant relative or a friend as my proxy, what is the guarantee he or she will cast the vote according to my preference? The political parties back home can influence my proxy to vote for their candidate,” said Siby Varghese, who works with a multinational company.

He said he could not appoint a proxy unless there is a mechanism to confirm that he will vote for the candidate of his choice. Siby said it was not possible to trust even family members as they have their own political leanings.

Anil Mathews, general secretary of Dammam-based Pathanamthitta Non-Residents Association of Malayalees, said that most of his association members also shared the same concern. He feels that the proxy voting would be risky in a state like Kerala where people are highly politicised.

KV Shamsudheen, chairman of the Sharjah-based Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust, a charitable organisation working for the welfare of NRIs in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, questions the need for proxy voting in the technologically advanced era.

“Technology is now available to make foolproof online voting. The government should use this and introduce online voting. Aadhaar card, which serves as the single identification, is now mandatory for all resident Indians. If the NRIs too are brought under this, they can vote online with biometric identification sitting anywhere in the world,” he added.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) too has come out against proxy voting. It believes proxy voting might affect free and fair polls. Party general secretary and member of Rajya Sabha Sitaram Yechury has called for withdrawal of the decision. He has demanded voting for NRIs through Indian embassies and consulates.

KV Abdul Khader, party MLA in Kerala and general secretary of Pravasi Sangham, a CPM-sponsored body of Non-Resident Keralites and foreign returnees, said that the party had been opposing proxy voting from the very beginning as it firmly believed that it was vulnerable for misuse.

“Majority of the Keralites living abroad are unskilled or semi-skilled workers in the Middle East. Most of these countries do not allow political activity. This means that the political parties may have to employ different tactics to canvas the NRI votes. We are afraid this could even pave way to vote trading,” Khader told Firstpost.

Congress secretary Jyothikumar Chamakkala disagrees and dispels such fears. He told Firstpost that NRKs were more politically conscious than even many residents. They have strong views about the state. They are disillusioned with the current state of politics in the state. They want the politicians to shed their petty politics and focus on development of the state.

Jyothikumar feels that if the NRIs make use of their right, they may serve as the corrective force in the state. There are more than 2.5 million Keralites living abroad. The expats and their families constitute a good chunk of the electorate. If the NRIs use their votes judiciously, it will make a big difference in Kerala.

Curiously, the Congress too had opposed proxy voting at the national level when the Election Commission consulted political parties on the voting options to be given to the NRIs after Supreme Court directed the Election Commission to ensure NRI participation in the electoral process. However, the state leaders of the party are not averse to proxy voting.

Political observers feel that this may be because the Congress senses an advantage in the NRI voting. The party and its allies are in a better position to canvas NRI votes since they have greater presence in the GCC states, where 90 percent of Keralites reside, compared to its rivals in the state.

While the CPM has only six organisations to represent the party in the entire GCC region, the Overseas Indian Cultural Congress (OICC) and the Priyadarshini Cultural Centre, through which the Congress operates, has units in all GCC sates. Besides this, the party also has many constituency-wise organisations in most countries.

The party’s second largest ally, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), also has huge presence in the region. Its front organisation, the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC), is the largest outfit with the highest number of members and local units in the GCC states.

KMCC plays an active role during elections. It had chartered flights during the 2011 Assembly elections to send registered voters to Kerala for casting their votes. KMCC had also sent its leaders to Kerala to canvas votes of the families of its members.

NRI votes will have a big bearing on the electoral outcome in Kerala since the margin of victory in most constituencies is very narrow. The victory margin in 28 of the 140 constituencies in the state during the 2016 Assembly elections was less than 5,000 votes. Seventeen of these seats went in favour of CPM and its allies in the Left Democratic Front (LDF).

The victory margin was less than 1,000 in six constituencies. The margin was less than 100 in two seats and between 1,000 and 2,000 in seven constituencies. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which opened its account in the Assembly in this election with one seat, missed another seat by a margin of just 89 votes.

The low margin phenomenon is also evident in Lok Sabha elections. The victory margin in 8 of the 20 seats was less than 20,000 votes in the 2014 general elections. The margin was just 3,306 votes in one seat.

Twenty-five seats went below a margin of 2,700 votes in the 2006 Assembly elections, in which the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) captured power by a wafer-thin margin of just four seats. The margin in five constituencies then was less than 1,000 votes and in eight constituencies less than 2,000 votes.

A number of constituencies witness such close contests in every election in the state. The NRI votes will be crucial in such seats. Hence, political parties will do everything possible to woo the NRIs. This may take the poll campaign to Gulf countries, where political activity is now not allowed, and risk the future of expats.

Updated Date: Aug 04, 2017 11:41 AM

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