India expats will finally influence polls back home

Petition started by Dr Shamsheer Vayalil wins backing of India's highest court

Dr Shamsheer Vayalil has led the charge for Indian expatriates to be given the right to vote from overseas in their home country's general elections.  Delores Johnson / The National
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ABU DHABI // The next general election in India could be decided by Indian expatriates in the Middle East, says an Abu Dhabi doctor whose petition to India’s highest court has paved the way for more than 10 million of them to vote overseas.

Excitement is building among non-resident Indians (NRIs) because they will finally get to vote in elections in their home state and country.

“Without the vote, you are just an object. But now everybody, even us who live overseas, will have a voice and this will become an influence or a pressure group once this new category of voters is added,” said Dr Shamsheer Vayalil, managing director of VPS Healthcare.

Dr Vayalil, who has lived in the UAE for 12 years and runs nine hospitals in the Emirates, filed a public-interest litigation last April. He was seeking enforcement of an Indian citizen’s fundamental right to vote and allowing NRIs to cast their vote abroad.

“The next election will be decided in the Middle East. Even with 1,000 to 2,000 votes people win or lose elections, so with state elections our numbers will make a difference,” he said.

India’s supreme court on Monday directed the federal government to enable voting for NRIs within eight weeks.

There are more than 10 million NRIs, according to Indian government figures, with 1.75 million of them living in the UAE.

Of the 2.36 million Indians from Kerala state who live overseas, 910,000 reside in the UAE and 590,000 in Saudi Arabia, according to Kerala government figures.

Voting by electronic ballot was recommended in an election commission report submitted to the court following Dr Vayalil’s petition.

A ballot can be downloaded by a voter living overseas by means of a personal password. The ballot should be filled in and posted to the constituency in India.

The election commission decided against NRIs casting their votes at diplomatic missions – which the citizens of 50 other countries usually do – because of the sheer numbers of Indians living overseas and the logistical problems the embassies would encounter.

However, there was work still to be done, said Dr Vayalil, who travelled to New Delhi to attend all eight hearings of the case.

“There will need to be amendments in the law and work needs to be done on implementation and methodology,” he said.

“But now that it has been accepted in letter and spirit, we can be sure that further steps will be taken.”

For years non-resident groups had urged successive Indian governments to permit them to vote.

NRIs were granted this right following a government notification in 2010, but they had to return to their constituency in India to do so.

This federal decision was often described as ineffective and impractical since few NRIs, businessmen aside, could afford to travel home for just a few days.

Voting rights will ensure that the voices of poor Indian workers will be heard at the next general election in 2019.

Dr Vayalil said low-income NRIs would benefit from getting to vote abroad. “They live here for 25 to 30 years with no one to look after them when they go back. They have no healthcare, benefits or pension. There is no earnest hearing of their problems for which they require long-term solutions. They are the ones who need help,” he said.

Indian expatriates in the UAE said they never dreamt of being able to vote while living overseas.

“We will have a voice; politicians and political parties will hear what we have to say,” said Amjad Nyari, a welder in Dubai.

“We can’t go home for three to four years because we don’t have money. When a worker dies, it is expensive to send his body home – all this we will talk about.”

Shazia Kidwai, a financial consultant in Sharjah, said the decision was brilliant.

“We may be NRIs but we are absolutely in touch with everything in India,” he said. “We know we will go back to India in the end, so it’s important for us to see which political party is taking action. This will be one of the most important rights we will exercise as Indian citizens.”