Date: Friday, December 4, 2020
Letter to Election Commission by CPI(M) General Secretary send on December 4, 2020
Shri Sunil Arora
Chief Election Commissioner
Election Commission of India
Dear Shri Arora ji,
We are surprised and shocked to come across media reports that Election Commission has forwarded a legal framework for facilitating the voting of overseas Indians/NRIs to exercise their franchise in the upcoming assembly elections in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Pondicherry.
At the outset, we would like to categorically state that the CPI(M) is in favour of extending a more effective voting right to overseas Indians/NRIs for participating in the election process of the country. The CPI(M) had suggested the setting up of polling booths at our Embassy/Missions and other facilities in different foreign countries to permit Indian citizens to cast their votes in those countries where they are currently residing. This practice is followed by many democracies in the world and conforms to the practice of physical verification of the voters.
Our sense of shock flows from the blatant departure from the conventional modus operandi adopted by the Election Commission of consultations with political parties before finalising issues of such major import. It was in 2014 that the EC had first taken up the proposal to permit NRI voters to cast their votes. The Commission had at that point of time held an all-party consultation to discuss the possible methods to actualise a full proof mechanism to ensure a ‘free and fair’ poll so far as the NRI voters are concerned. Subsequently, the Supreme Court also upheld the rights of the Non Resident Indians who are Indian passport holders to be able to more meaningfully participate in the democratic electoral process.
A bill to extend the facility of proxy voting to overseas Indians had lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha. The ECI’s letter to the Law Ministry now proposes to give postal voting rights not proxy voting to NRIs. This means the government only needs to amend the Conduct of Election Rules 1961. It doesn’t require Parliament’s approval.
The current reported proposal of the ECI has never been discussed at an all-party consultation as is the normal practise and a well-established precedent. It is clear that none of the alternatives which were part of the study of the expert group commissioned by the ECI in 2015 to draw up a concrete proposal could come up with a full proof arrangement.
However, media reports suggest that ECI’s proposal received by the Law Ministry on 25th November states that any NRI interested in voting through the postal ballot will have to inform the Returning Officer(RO) at least five days after the notification of the election. On receiving such information, the RO will despatch the ballot paper electronically. The NRI voters will mark their preference on the ballot printouts and send them back along with a declaration attested by an officer appointed by the diplomatic or consular representative of India in the country where the NRI is a resident.
It’s not clear, at this moment, whether the voter will return the ballot paper herself through ordinary post or drop it off at the Indian Embassy, which may then segregate the envelops constituency-wise.
However, the current reported proposal of ‘dispatching the ballot paper electronically’ is fraught with the challenge of manipulation. Seen against the ‘physical verifiability of the voter as an inviolable principle’ for casting the vote, ensuring it in the context of an overseas/NRI voter through the electronic transmission of the ballot is clearly problematic. The dispatch of the marked out ballot through the election authority at the constituency level is another complex challenge. Clearly, the issue is how to protect the secrecy and integrity of the ballot which will be received by the individual elector. The fact that these voters are working in conditions which are not immune from external influences including their foreign employers is the most worrying factor.
Therefore, the CPI(M) is of the firm opinion that the Election Commission should immediately convene an all-party meeting for deliberating the complex issues involved in the effective extension of voting rights to NRIs at the earliest, before moving further.