Proxy voting right for non-resident Indians, approved by the Union Cabinet on August 2, could have limited effect, if any, on election outcomes in Kerala. Reason: A large number of migrants from the state are not registered voters.

According to the Kerala Migration Survey 2016, conducted by Professor Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies, 20 lakh migrants from Kerala live in the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.

Proxy voting allows non-resident Indians to participate in elections without coming home. They can authorise someone they trust to vote on their behalf. Currently, only defence personnel are allowed to use proxy voting. But unlike defence personnel, who can use a permanent proxy, non-resident Indians will have to nominate a fresh proxy for every election.

But the option of proxy voting is available only to registered voters. “The majority of the Gulf residents from Kerala earn low incomes,” said PM Jabir, who has been working among migrant labourers in the region for 35 years. “They have genuine interest in the politics back home. But they have to work overtime to support their families. So they stay away from time-consuming processes like electoral registration.”

However, he added, “registrations will increase if the Indian embassies provide them a facility for enrolment.”

At present, expatriates can register to vote using the Election Commission of India’s online registration system. After completing the preliminary online registration, the signed application and self-attested copies of passport and visa have to be sent electronically to the respective taluk’s Electoral Registration Officer.

Jabir said many applications have been rejected for minor mistakes. “We have found that the officers act according to their political affiliations when they deal with such applications from expatriates,” he claimed.

The Election Commission had encouraged expatriates to use the online registration system before the Lok Sabha election in 2014. It did not yield the desired result as only 11,844 overseas Indians availed of the opportunity.

Kerala MLA Parakkal Abdullah, who owns several restaurants and supermarkets in Qatar, said expatriates from Kerala have been facing many difficulties to get their names on the voters’ list. “Voter registration is a tedious process, and the majority of Keralites in the Gulf countries cannot spend time on it,” he said. “The embassy should take immediate measures to ensure their registration. Otherwise, they will be deprived of the benefits of a crucial electoral reform.”

Potential for misuse

Voting rights for non-resident Indians became the subject of a debate in the country after two expatriates, Nagender Chindan and VP Shamsheer, separately petitioned the Supreme Court in 2014.

In response to the petitions, the Election Commission informed the court that it would form a panel to examine the feasibility of providing voting rights to overseas citizens.

When the committee sat for deliberation, all major political parties except the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expressed their reservations about proxy voting. While the BJP said proxy voting would face no logistical problem, the Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party and Communist Party of India, among others, argued that it was impossible to guarantee that the proxy voter would vote as per the actual voter’s wishes.

Jabir, too, feared that proxy voting could open up an avenue for buying votes from registered voters in the Gulf countries. “There are many flaws in the system,” he said. “I think political parties with money power will try to buy proxy voting rights from registered voters during election time.”

Abdullah said although he supported granting voting rights to non-resident Indians, he was not convinced about proxy voting. “Will it be possible to check impersonation and vote buying in this system?” he asked.

In Kerala, political leaders said, proxy voting by overseas voters could change the outcome in five of the 140 Assembly constituencies – Nadapuram, Perambra, Kuttiadi, Palakkad and Varkala – which have fairly large non-resident populations.

Kuttiadi, for long a fortress of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), produced the biggest surprise of the 2016 Assembly election when Parakkal Abdullah, of the Indian Union Muslim League, won the seat by a thin margin of 1,157 votes.

Abdullah said it was Gulf-based voters who helped him register the upset win. “Plenty of non-resident voters from Gulf countries flew down on election day to cast votes for me,” he said. “I owe the victory to the expatriate community.”

Congress leader and former Diaspora Minister KC Joseph said Abdullah’s victory showed that voters from the Gulf could help the United Democratic Front, which is led by his party, win elections. “Expatriates can change the results in many constituencies,” he said.

But Joseph is wary that proxy voting would encourage “vote sale”. “It will torpedo the election process,” he added.

The ruling CPI(M) has sought withdrawal of the proxy voting system, saying it would damage the idea of free and fair elections by “distorting” the results.