India has the largest diaspora population, with nearly 1.35 crore non-resident Indians spread across the globe. Many of them leave the country for short-term work and could miss out on exercising some of their rights such as registering their vote in India’s Assembly or parliamentary elections. Currently, the Election Commission of India (ECI) allows enrolled overseas citizens to vote in person at the polling station in the constituency where the person is registered as an overseas elector. The necessity to vote in person and the costs have, for overseas citizens, acted as a disincentive for their wanting to exercise their mandate. This was evident in the numbers of such voters in the 2019 Lok Sabha election — 25,606 among the minuscule 99,844 registered electors who voted. In 2014, a committee constituted by the ECI to probe methods to enable overseas voters’ mandates concluded that proxy voting was the most viable, although some political parties objected to the idea. A Bill was passed in the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19) to enable this but lapsed. In 2020, the ECI approached the Government to permit NRIs to vote via postal ballots, similar to the system already used by service voters, ie, the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS), which allows registering their mandate on a downloaded ETPB and sending it to the returning officer of the constituency.
On the face of it, allowing postal ballot use should be a good move for NRIs, even if this does increase the burden on embassy or consular officials. This is also a more trustworthy way of registering mandates rather than appointing proxies — which is currently allowed for service personnel who are a limited number in each constituency unlike NRIs who could constitute a more substantial chunk among the electorate in some States. In the 2014 discussion organized by the ECI, some parties raised the question whether NRIs will get a benefit denied to internal migrant workers, but the higher costs of traveling back to India, as opposed to traveling within, is a valid reason for allowing NRIs the partially electronic postal balloting facility. Several democratic countries allow for this option to their overseas citizens, but again, none has to deal with anything near the scale India has. The more important question to be tackled while extending the facility of voting to overseas Indians is whether longer term migrants should also be allowed to register their mandate as the idea behind limiting voters to specific constituencies on account of their residency will become ineffective. Therefore, if the postal ballot system is indeed instituted, rules must be clearly framed for voters’ eligibility on the basis of their time spent away from the country.