Non-resident Indians criticise voting change

New Delhi gives non-resident Indians the right to vote in national elections, but prospective voters would have to travel back to the country to cast their ballot.

Voters line-up to cast their votes at a polling station in Mahanadi Vihar, about 40 km (26 miles) south from the eastern Indian city of Bhubaneswar April 23, 2009. Tens of millions of Indians from insurgency-hit states to the IT hub of Bangalore began voting on Thursday in the second round of a month-long election that could throw up a weak coalition amid an economic slump. REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw (INDIA POLITICS ELECTIONS) *** Local Caption ***  DEL08_INDIA-ELECTIO_0423_11.JPG
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DUBAI // Community leaders have described as unrealistic India's decision to permit non-resident Indians (NRIs) to vote in national elections, saying it was impractical to travel home to cast a ballot.

Acting on a long-standing demand by NRIs for voting rights, the Indian government said last week it had issued an official notification giving them the right to vote in the country's elections. The move did not include a provision for absentee ballots and any prospective voter would have to be at the polling station in person.

NRIs in the Emirates were critical of a decision they deemed ineffectual and potentially costly. Official estimates put the number of NRIs in the UAE at 1.75 million, many of whom can not afford a trip home to vote.

"This is ridiculous on the government's part to expect millions of NRIs to travel back to India to cast the ballot," said Sri Priyaa, the director general of Sharjah's Indian Trade and Exhibition Centre.

"The government is making way for NRIs to be heard on one hand by allowing us to vote and taking it away by this stipulation to come back home for voting. Casting votes at Indian missions in a particular country or region is [more] practical."

Like many others, Ms Priyaa wished she could vote on an absentee basis, while terming the government's move as an encouraging first step as it showed that NRIs had not been forgotten. An NRI's name will be deleted from the voters' list if he or she stays outside the country for more than six consecutive months.

Many western nations including the US and UK allow their citizens to vote while working or living abroad, providing them with a ballot they can post. Sanjay Verma, the Indian consul general, said making provisions to allow voting in Indian embassies was a decision to be taken by the central government.

"Any decision to extend that facility of the ballot would take all factors into consideration," Mr Verma said. "It would have to be looked at in totality and considered in [New] Delhi."

The Indian government's election commission is expected to finalise the rules to enter the names of NRIs in the electoral rolls soon. It was not yet clear whether the first election they could vote in would be the 2014 general poll or the state elections slated for early next year.

But that lack of clarity did not deter Abdul Naser, the president of the UAE's Kerala Youth Cultural Club, from chalking up plans to vote in his state election. He felt that the chance to participate was worth working his holiday plans around the poll.

"I'm sure I will be able to vote in the Kerala state elections in April or May," said Mr Naser, a manager with a property firm who has worked in Dubai for a decade.

"I will plan my vacation around the elections. If it is a crucial election that can be won on a small margin then I will go with my family so my wife can also vote."

However, Mr Naser was in a minority in his enthusiasm as others such as K Kumar, who heads the Dubai-based Indian Community Welfare Committee, described travelling back home as outside the realm of possibility for most Indians here.

"It's definitely not feasible, though some in the business community may still go," he said. "This [decision] is OK on paper but I don't think it will have any effect. How will you go for an election in the middle of a school term abroad?"

Bureaucratic inefficiency allowed NRIs such as Abhimanyu Giri, the managing director of a trading company in Dubai, the possibility to vote although he has lived overseas for the past 10 years. His name has not yet been struck off the list of eligibles.

"Technically my name is on the voters' list and I could go vote even now, but I wouldn't leave my business and go to vote," Mr Giri said.

"It's just not feasible."