The Indian Oversees Congress (IOC) has announced plans to field Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) in the Punjab State Assembly elections next year. The party plans to field about 10 candidates on the Congress Party ticket next year according to IOC President Vikram Bajwa.
According to the Representation of the People Act, 1951 a person can contest elections if he is also an “elector for a Parliamentary constituency in India”. Or simply put, being a voter is the primary prerequisite for contesting elections in India. In a recent amendment to the 1951 Act, NRIs who have not acquired the citizenship of another country can now register as voters in India.*
This means that a non-resident India could contest elections in India at the local, state and federal levels if he is a registered voter. It would be a great opportunity for NRIs to participate and make a difference in the political process and policy-making of their country. Their international experience could be put to good use in improving governance and bringing new ideas to the administration of their states/country.
However, it might not be in the interest of the voters if the individual is required to reside in or cannot leave his host country for long stretches of time. It could affect the elected NRI’s parliamentary attendance and actual participation in debates and discussions on the floor of the House. Questions need to be raised if such a candidate would be attuned to the needs and interests of his constituents, and can serve them efficiently. Or will he be an arm-chair philosopher? Governance is a full-time responsibility, and if a representative cannot be present with and for his constituents at all times due to other work/ business obligations and financial constraints, it would be a big loss for the voters. (Would the travel expenses of the NRI, traveling to be with his constituents, be charged to the taxpayer?)
The IOC’s decision to field NRIs in Punjab is commendable, but it should be scrutinized if the purpose is to provide representation to the NRI community and its needs; or allow a distinguished member of a constituency to represent and give back to his community; or simply appease the NRI community with the purpose of acquiring more support and funds for the party? If the decision is about representing NRIs, then a different process of nominating such a member of the non-resident community to the Assembly or Parliament should also be considered. The Ministry of Oversees Indian Affairs has already been created with such a mandate to look into the concerns of the community.
The right to contest elections for NRIs could be an important event in the political evolution of India. But it first needs to go through the right process of deliberations. The opinions and interests of the voters, the intentions of the political parties and an objective analysis of what the NRI community can contribute to the governance of the country should be considered before allowing NRIs to contest elections in the country. The sentiment of participation if commendable, the practicality of it is suspect.
* An NRI can vote in an Indian election if he is present in the constituency where he is registered on the date of voting. Unlike earlier provisions that automatically removed a person’s name from the list if he were not living in India for a stretch of six months, the new bill will allow voters to stay away for more than six months and continue to exercise their vote.