Modi’s 10 mn Indian overseas votebank: Election Commission puts long discussed idea on track

NEW DELHI,AMITA SHAH, IFTIKHAR GILANI : Like an electoral bridge over global waters, the Election Commission is moving to ensure that the more than 10 million Indian passport holders abroad may finally get to exercise their right to vote. And it is doing so through a cannily mounted contest and a survey, guaranteed to grab eyeballs with ‘karma’ points, a round trip to India and weekly lotteries.

Going ahead on an issue that has long been under debate, the poll panel has tied up with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in its mission to include overseas voters into the country’s election process. The process kicks off this month with the ambitious survey and contest – tag-lined “every vote counts” – to crowdsource ideas from Indians living abroad.

TISS will analyse the findings of the online survey and give it to the Election Commission, which in turn will submit it to the government. If all goes well, the government is likely to bring a bill to make changes in the Representation of People’s Act during the budget session next year, sources said.

While the contest, which will be open for 30 days, has categories like slogans, songs with original compositions, posters, photographs and short films, the 60-day survey has a set of 24 questions. As incentives to participate in a survey and competition, winners can claim a round trip to India and be honoured by the poll panel on national voters’ day on January 25. Also on offer are weekly lotteries and other prizes. Besides, NRIs can accumulate ‘karma’ points by posting on social media platforms using the hashtags for the campaign to generate conversation on the internet.

The material from the competition and survey will be used for campaign purposes to increase voter participation and understand the registration and participation rates among overseas electors.

The Narendra Modi-government had submitted before the Supreme Court last year that the Cabinet would consider a draft bill seeking to allow e-voting by NRIs, armed forces personnel and security forces working outside their constituency. As of now, overseas Indians with Indian passports can vote only if they are physically present in the constituency. However, in the 2014 elections, only 11,846 voters registered, Election Commission statistics reveal.

Any change requires a two-fold amendment in the law – allowing electronic postal ballot and NRIs voting by post.

BJP ecstatic
For the ruling BJP, this is an opportunity to translate the euphoria of events such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Madison Square event in New York when chants of “Modi, Modi” resonated across the venue – and at home. Since then, Modi has held similar diaspora events in other countries too.

Senior BJP leader and union minister of state for parliamentary affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said the BJP was in favour of extending facilities to Indian passport holders to vote. “They can make a personal appearance to vote or they should be given options like postal ballot to make it easier for them to cast their vote,” he said.

However, the Congress, while welcoming the Election Commission’s initiative, has said privileges not being given to Indian voters must not be extended to NRI voters either. According to the party’s legal cell’s petition before the poll panel, the Congress is not in favour of sending ballot papers by electronic mail or the acceptance of self-attested ballot papers as valid votes. The party has emphasized that internet voting is prone to misuse and rigging and therefore cannot be a viable voting mechanism.

There was nothing wrong in extending facilities to NRIs to vote but this would benefit the BJP, said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, an expert on Hindu right-wing politics and author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.

“When he goes abroad, he addresses (gatherings) as a Hindu leader. There has been a massive resurgence of Hindutva among Indians abroad. It is the BJP’s core constituency. This was clear from the Madison Square event. There is nothing wrong if they get a chance to vote, but it would not be enough to overturn the verdict,” he said.

NRI population abroad 10,037,761
Countries with large NRI populations
Saudi Arabia 17,89,000

UAE 17,50,000

UK 15,00,000

US 9,27,283

Oman 7,18,000