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Archive for May 2014

The knives are out in the Congress Party — and fingers are being pointed at Rahul Gandhi’s lieutenant Madhusudan Mistry, and party president Sonia Gandhi’s aide in the National Advisory Council (NAC), Aruna Roy. Sonia Sarkarand Smitha Verma look at the rumpus

Success, as the wise man said, has many fathers; failure is an orphan. The Congress party’s electoral debacle is a case in point. Nobody wants to take the blame for its worst ever performance in a general election, but quite a few are ready to point fingers at others. Milind Deora has blamed advisors of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi for the defeat; former sports minister Jitendra Singh has accused Deora of not speaking out when he was a minister. And quite a few stalwarts have blamed outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The knives, indeed, are out.

But nobody, perhaps, is being blamed as much as Gandhi’s trusted lieutenant Madhusudan Mistry, and party president Sonia Gandhi’s vocal aide in the controversial National Advisory Council (NAC), Aruna Roy. Mistry failed miserably as the man in charge of Uttar Pradesh. And though Roy resigned from the NAC last year, many see her support for programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Assurance (MGNREGA) scheme as one of the reasons for the Congress’s downfall.

So who is Madhusudan Mistry?

In the Congress, the voice against Mistry is getting shriller by the day. The former Sabarkantha MP, who lost to Narendra Modi from Vadodara, has been described as the “poor man’s Amit Shah”. Mistry did everything that Modi’s aide did — travel across UP, work on his laptop for long hours and weigh would-be candidates.

“But if Shah did everything right, Mistry did everything wrong,” a party watcher says. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ally won 73 seats out of 80 in UP, the Congress won two.

Mistry, 69, doesn’t want to talk about all this. He is at home, recovering from sunstroke and diarrhoea. “We will speak (of the defeat) within the party. We will resolve our problems,” says Mistry, who is meeting Gujarat party workers on May 31.

The Rajya Sabha MP impressed Rahul Gandhi with his performance in Parliament. “He had cent per cent attendance. He is also extremely good at composing drafts and has a good grasp of social issues. Rahul liked these qualities and made him a part of his core team,” an observer says.

His entry into the Congress, however, was through former Gujarat chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela. Mistry, who ran a non-government organisation called Developing Initiatives for Social and Human Action (DISHA) in Sabarkantha focusing on tribal rights, was addressing a tribal rally when Vaghela, who was then in the BJP, spotted him.

Later, when Vaghela left the BJP to set up the Rashtriya Janata Party, he made Mistry its president. When Vaghela joined the Congress in 1998, so did Mistry. He fought and won from Sabarkantha in 2002, reclaimed it in 2004 but lost the seat in 2009 by 17,000 votes.

Some Congressmen whisper that he has connections with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). On Twitter, Mistry has denied this. Some accuse him of converting tribals into Christians, which again Mistry has denied. At a public meeting, he took out a string with beads around his neck to show that he was a Hindu.

The father of four lives in a two-storey house in Vadodara. Mistry is proud to be a jholachhap and maintains a simple lifestyle. “He is so simple that he eats sitting on the floor. Looking at him, nobody can gauge how big he is politically,” an aide says.

A Gujarati OBC, he was brought up by his grandmother, a vegetable seller. He worked as a mason when he was in school, and then as an office peon, a clerk and a colour mixer. After doing a course on moulding from the Indian Technical Institute, he won a scholarship to Ruskin College, affiliated to Oxford University, for a diploma in development studies. After working for Oxfam, he started DISHA.

But the problem, the Congress watcher says, is that he likes to cash in on his “self-made image” which irks others. “And he harps on the fact that he has no old connections with the party, which many members have. Gandhi appreciates this, but the veteran party members don’t.”

Mistry was put in charge of the 2011 Kerala state Assembly elections, which the Congress-led front won. In 2013, he looked after the Karnataka elections, which again the Congress won. But some argue that Kerala anyway has a strong Congress presence, and Karnataka was going through an anti-BJP wave.

His failure in UP has elbowed out his successes. A party member says that one of the reasons behind the failure is his inability to handle people. “He doesn’t like people crowding his office. He doesn’t entertain calls at odd hours. He doesn’t even chat with party workers over chai and samosa.”

A small section, however, speaks up for him. Other Congressmen, it says, are irked by his rise in the party and closeness to Gandhi. “He is also very straight forward. His intentions are good but he can’t perform,” a Congress MLA says.

Mistry replaced Narendra Rawat, who had won the primary held in Vadodara. “Mistry told everyone in Gujarat that it was his lifetime wish to fight against Modi,” a Congress leader says. Modi defeated him by over 5,70,000 votes.

And then there was Roy.

This time last year, in one of the thickly-carpeted rooms of the NAC office in a sprawling bungalow in Lutyens’s Delhi, a resignation letter was discussed in hushed tones. Just before the advisory board convened its 30th meeting, NAC chairperson Gandhi was handed over the letter. And Aruna Roy, social activist and anti-corruption crusader, walked out of the organisation for the second time since its inception in 2004, saying that she did not wish to be considered for another term.

Earlier this month, it held its last meeting.

Roy’s detractors believe that she contributed to the Congress defeat. MGNREGA, spearheaded by Roy among others, offered 100 days of guaranteed wage-employment in a year to a rural household. And it led to an estimated two per cent rise in inflation — which rattled the middle class.

Not everybody is convinced of this. “How can you blame the NAC or Roy for the downfall? If anything, their advice was heeded in the UPA’s first term and not in the second one,” argues social activist and Roy aide Nikhil Dey.

Roy, 67, became a part of the Gandhi coterie when she was inducted into the 12-member body comprising former civil servants, activists and academics. It was often called a parallel or kitchen cabinet run by Sonia Gandhi.

“The NAC wielded extra-constitutional power, superseding the Cabinet, contributing to the perception that the Prime Minister wasn’t really in charge,” says Nitin Pai, who runs the think tank Takshashila Institution in Bangalore.

Roy and Sonia, says a former NAC member, shared a comfortable working relationship. “The chairperson always listened patiently to her and gave her inputs much credence.” But Roy quit the NAC in 2006, accusing the government of moving away from its common minimum programme. She returned to the NAC in 2010. “She and (academic) Jean Dreze were forever threatening to resign when things didn’t go their way,” a detractor says.

Gandhi, who relied on Roy, was “hurt” when she resigned last year, the former member says. “The chairperson wrote a nice parting letter to Roy highlighting her contribution but was greatly disappointed when Roy went to the media about her displeasure with the NAC,” he says.

Even as a section of economists rails against Roy, the Ramon Magsaysay Award winner is looked upon well in the social sector for her crusade against corruption. A Tamilian, she joined the IAS in 1968 but quit the bureaucracy in 1974 to follow in her husband Sanjit “Bunker” Roy’s path of social work. In 1983, she set up the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana (MKSS) in Rajasthan for empowering farmers. From there she started a movement for the public’s right to scrutinise official records that laid the foundation for the Right to Information Act.

In 2011, Roy — whom political analyst Swapan Dasgupta describes as the “Queen Bee of India’s jholawalas” in one of his columns — figured in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people. But her background as a former IAS officer and the fact that she knew almost every senior bureaucrat riled a section in the Congress. Some say she particularly ruffled feathers when she referred to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by his first name at meetings.

MGNREGA has its share of vocal critics, too. They believe it’s a waste of money as people are paid for little or no work. “It wasn’t implemented well and it failed to create rural assets,” says economist Narendra Jadhav, member, Planning Commission, and former NAC member.

“There was often disagreement within the NAC. You had to come up with really good arguments to counter Roy because she held a strong viewpoint,” says Ashis Mondal, an NAC member in its second term.

Roy, back with MKSS, rubbishes the allegations. She doesn’t want to talk about her relationship with Sonia but is scathing about MGNREGA opponents. “There is a rich farmer-industrialist-contractor lobby opposing it. They are backed by economists who want no expenditure to be incurred on the development of the poor,” Roy adds.

The alumna of Delhi University is preparing for her next role. She is keeping a close watch on what the new government does with MGNREGA and warns of a backlash if it is disbanded.

But that’s for the new government to work on. For the Congress, the defeat marks the end — and start — of an era. After the blame game, work may start.

  • *Till 1.1.2013

Career Graph

  • Under fire: Madhusudan Mistry (top) and Aruna Roy

 Rajya Sabha MP Madhusudan Mistryis said to be close to Rahul Gandhi. The former MP from Sabarkantha lost to Narendra Modi from Vadodara.

 Was in charge of UP for the Congress. Earlier, he’d been in charge of the 2011 Kerala state Assembly elections, and of the Karnataka elections in 2013.

 Entered the Congress through former Gujarat chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela.

 Lives in a two-storey house in Vadodara and maintains a simple lifestyle.

 Brought up by his grandmother, a vegetable seller. Worked as a mason when in school, and as an office peon, a clerk and a colour mixer. Won a scholarship to Ruskin College, affiliated to Oxford University, for a diploma in development studies. After working for Oxfam, he started an NGO.

 Former NAC member Aruna Roy is being blamed for MGNREGA, which offered 100 days of guaranteed wage-employment in a year to a rural household. Critics hold that the jobs programme helped fuel inflation.

 The Ramon Magsaysay Award winner joined the IAS but quit to join her husband “Bunker” Roy in social work in Rajasthan.

 Figured in Time magazine’s 2011 list of the world’s 100 most influential people.


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 ECONOMY & MARKET: 

The two aren’t exactly mutually exclusive but as per former BJP leader Jaswant Singh a buzzing stock exchange is not an index of good economic health. On the day of the results, the stock market ended 216 points higher at 24,121 after earlier rallying 1470 points on BJP’s big win. Earlier this week, Reserve Bank of India governor Raghram Rajan said that contingency plans are in place to tackle market volatility. As per economist Surjit Bhalla, the stock markets around the world are moving up and the Indian market hasn’t gone ahead of itself so far.

Experts suggest that the government will have to take immediate measures to pick up the economic growth which has fallen below five per cent. Measures to boost confidence include improving the manufacturing sector, getting the investment cycle going, and fast track project clearances. “The industry is looking for top policy steps such as introduction of Goods and Services Tax (GST), easing of interest rates by 100 bps, keeping subsidies at 1.7 per cent of GDP, and restructuring of labour laws to promote mass manufacturing,” says S Shriram, president, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).  GST is an indirect tax reform which will replace the existing state and federal levies with a uniform tax and when implemented will boost the economy, though it would need firm backing as it requires a change in constitution.

According to Bhalla, income tax compliance will be a big challenge ahead for the government. “Growth will depend on what will be done to land acquisition, how labour laws are implemented and quick decisions to be taken on pending projects,” Bhalla adds.

 BUDGET

The previous government had presented an interim budget in February. Under the new government, the budget which is expected by July, will be a tough one and would put forward a strong statement. The industry sentiments have to be valued without affecting pro-poor reforms, say insiders. As per Sidharth Birla, president, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), the first budget should be a roadmap for fiscal and current account consolidation. “It should lead to revival of investments, so as to strengthen civic, physical and social infrastructure,” Birla says.

According to reports, plans are being devised to cut the federal fiscal deficit, which could potentially risk a ratings downgrade, if there is no economic growth. “Also, greater power must be given to states to amend/implement laws especially labour and environment. The states should be incentivised to pace up the implementation of key reforms, such as GST,” Birla says. India, which has a vulnerable emerging market, also needs a strong reform package to generate 150 million new jobs in the next 10 years.

MNREGA

The BJP in its manifesto said it will seek greater fiscal discipline without compromising on the availability of funds for development. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGA), one of the flagship programmes of the UPA, would get an overhaul, predict insiders. The act which offers 100 days of guaranteed wage-employment in a year to a rural household may undergo tweaking in the days ahead. The ability to raise revenues for MNREGA would depend on the tax revenues collected from big businesses and profits made.

 

“Since the food bill was supported in the Parliament, they will be compelled to continue with the programme,” says Harsh Mander, Supreme Court Commissioner to Right to Food case. Political observer Ashok Malik says that the scheme would be linked to asset creation. The subsidies cost an estimated 2.2 per cent of India’s GDP last year and the task ahead for the NDA would be to contain it.  “The government needs to immediately disband MNREGA and replace it with cash system. Subsequently the amount of saving will increase,” Bhalla says.

UIDAI

 UPA’s pet project, Aadhaar, which promised to give identity to one billion plus people of India could be sidelined, if not scrapped, by the BJP government. Since the project, which had no Constitutional backing, has already been challenged in the Supreme Court,  BJP will not like to continue with the Rs 3,300 crore project anymore. Even after the court has directed the outgoing government to withdraw all orders which made Aadhaar mandatory for availing of government schemes, Aadhaar is still being considered compulsory for school admissions and marriage registration. But the new BJP government is likely to make this project invalid. There are also apprehensions that BJP will take on Nandan Nilekani, the man behind the project. Some believe that BJP would hound him and file a case against him. But there are others who think that BJP will not get into “petty” things. “BJP would have created problems for him if he had won. Now, they will let go of him,” political analyst Partho Ghosh feels.

 

MAMATA BANERJEE

With Mamata Banerjee’s Trimanul Congress winning 34 seats, it will definitely create a turmoil in the Parliament. Issues that Trinamul plans to raise with the BJP government are FDI in retail, price rise and inflation. The other big issue that the Trinamul will take up is the demand for a moratorium on interest payment and restructuring of its outstanding debt for Bengal. But there is no way that they will go soft with the right-wing party. Senior Trimanul leaders say that they will disrupt the Parliament exactly the way BJP did during UPA’s regime. “Having a  strong 27 per cent Muslim population in Bengal, we will never support BJP’s policies. We will prove to be destructive opposition for the BJP,”  a seniorTrinamul leader says. One has to wait and watch how tactfully Modi handlles one of his biggest oppositions!

EDUCATION

Education is one area where BJP is likely to focus upon. One of the first things that BJP would like to do is change the national curriculum. UPA-I did it when it came to power in 2004. A new national curriculum framework was set up to under the chairmanship of National Council Educational Research Training (NCERT) director Krishna Kumar, who is known to be an intellectual with Left leanings. Experts say that BJP would make an attempt to saffronise textbooks just the way they did it during NDA’s previous regime ( 1999-2004) when Murli Manohar Joshi was the human resources development minister. There will be attempts to “deliberate omissions and additions, use of certain words, using matters out of context and tweaking of facts” to colour the curriculum saffron. Some experts, half in jest, says that ‘Bal Narendra- Childhood Stories of Narendra Modi’ showcasing bravery tales of Modi’s childhood could be introduced in textbooks of primary classes too. Plus, the BJP would also retrustructure the University Grants Commission (UGC) and fill the post of member secretary, which has been lying vacant for an year. The academia is looking for a “free and fair” process of appointment to be followed in the 15 new central universities too. The other important task of BJP is to clean up the “deemed university” mess created by the former Congress human resources development minister Arjun Singh during UPA-I.  So, BJP has its handsful as far as education reforms are concerned.

 ELECTION COMMISSION

The rift between the Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath and the BJP is all out in the open . Speculation loom large that the BJP will try to make some changes in the composition of the EC by expanding the three-member panel to a five member one. But thankfully, BJP will not have to deal with Sampath for long as his tenure ends on January 15, 2015. It is H.S. Brahma, who will take over the top post of the EC once Sampath is gone. But BJP is not likely to have any problems with Brahma, who has recently criticised the UP state poll panel for its delayed response to the request of Narendra Modi who wanted to organise a rally in Varanasi’s Muslim populated Benia Bagh. Hailing from the Bodoland, Brahma even supports BJP’s crusade against Bangladeshi immigrants.

 

POLITICAL EQUATION WITHIN BJP:

The NDA government will have to give a clear signal that this is not a hostile government. “They will have to tell people that it is not a government to be run by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah,” says Sanjay Kumar of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Even though the election has been won on the Modi wave, the government has to be run with team effort. “Modi has to send out a signal that he has the capacity to accommodate and listen to everyone,” Kumar says.

So the voices of dissent which originated from the three senior leaders LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Sushma Swaraj, will have to be suitably pacified. Party insiders say there would be plum cabinet positions for Joshi and Swaraj. “Advani won’t be happy with the Lok Sabha speaker’s position as is being widely speculated. He would look for some executive position which holds power within the party like being the chairman of NDA,” says an insider.

According to political observers, the other possible voices of dissent that could create trouble in the future for Modi include SS Ahluwalia who defeated TMC’s Bhaichung Bhutia, Ananth Kumar who emerged victorious against Congress candidate Nandan Nilekani and Shatrughan Sinha.  “There won’t be any camps. A difference of opinion doesn’t necessarily translate to camps. When Modi became the chief minister of Gujarat there were voices of dissent yet he had three successful terms. Modi knows how to withstand opposition,” says Sheshadri Chari, member, national executive, BJP.

 

SEEMANDHRA

 

Now that Telangana has been formed, it’s time for political parties in Seemandhra to make noise. One of the major tasks of the BJP will be to deal with stiff opposition that Seemandhra leaders will pose in shaping up of Telangana.  Political observers say that more violence and unrest are likely to happen in the Seemandhra region as leaders of the region. Plus, the BJP might have to deal with the demand to keep Hyderabad as the joint capital of both Telanagana and Seemanshra even beyond the stipulated period of 10 years.  There could be demand to make Hyderabad an Union Territory as it has been in the case of Chandigarh, which serves as a joint capital of both Haryana and Chandigarh.  In nutsehll, it was Telangana which haunted the UPA, it will be Seemandhra which will keep the BJP busy.

 

(Compiled by Smitha Verma and Sonia Sarkar)

Spats between the Election Commission and political parties are not new. But the commission is now in the eye of a storm — it is being accused of having been partisan. Sonia Sarkar looks at the rumpus

 

The Twitterati — which has a phrase for every occasion — puts it pithily. “EC=10 Sampath,” the wags say, indicating that chief election commissioner (CEC) V.S. Sampath is acting under the orders of 10 Janpath, the residence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

The focus — in the virtual world and elsewhere — is on the office of the Election Commission (EC). Last week, the EC emerged as the latest player in the election arena. Under attack from all sides, it is particularly in the line of fire of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has described it as partisan.

The battle gathered momentum earlier this week when the EC denied the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, permission to organise a rally in the largely Muslim area of Benia Bagh in Varanasi, one of the constituencies Modi is fighting from. District magistrate and returning officer Pranjal Yadav had cited security reasons for the ban.

The decision triggered a war of words and deeds.

“The EC is acting in a partisan manner,” Modi told an election rally in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, while party leaders Arun Jaitley and Amit Shah sat on a dharna in Varanasi.

“We are doing our job uniformly, rigorously and in a non-partisan manner for conducting free and fair polls,” Sampath replied in Delhi.

But Modi seems to have won that round. On Friday, the EC appointed a special observer for Varanasi, to be placed above Yadav.

Spats between the EC and political parties are not new. But in this election, the voice of protest is exceptionally shrill. “The EC has failed to be impartial because the officials are under the control of the state government led by the Samajwadi Party,” BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar alleges.

The BJP has been taking potshots at the EC from the time the election body banned BJP vice-president Amit Shah from campaigning in UP after he delivered inflammatory speeches. The ban was lifted in a few days after Shah promised to behave. The fight took a new turn last week after the Gujarat administration filed two FIRs against Modi on the orders of the EC after he’d displayed his party’s symbol in violation of the poll code soon after voting in Gandhinagar.

That the EC is partisan, the BJP says, is evident from the fact that it has given a clean chit to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who was photographed in polling booths in Amethi on election day. However, it has issued a showcause notice to Gandhi for an alleged remark in Himachal Pradesh that 22,000 people would be killed if Modi came to power.

The EC’s detractors are growing in numbers. Among them is West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who dared the EC last month to transfer eight Bengal officials, including five superintendents of police and a district magistrate, during the polls. She accused the EC of playing into the hands of the Congress. The EC, however, won that round with Banerjee when it said that if its orders were not followed, elections in the state would be cancelled.

The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader too has hit out at the EC. “The Election Commission is going overboard. Who has given it the right to check vehicles on roads? This is causing harassment,” NCP strongman Sharad Pawar had said. And, surprisingly, even members of the party that the EC is said to be supporting have voiced their discontent.

“As I understand, the broad philosophical approach (of the EC) is: you should do and say nothing that wins you an election, you should try your best to lose elections,” outgoing external affairs minister Salman Khurshid told students at an educational institution in London recently.

  • Modi after casting his vote

Tempers are high, but the EC-vs-political party war is an old one. During the UP polls in 2012, former chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati called the EC “one-sided” when it ordered that her statues and those of the BSP poll symbol, an elephant, built at government expenses, be covered.

But as with each poll the ante is upped, political observers fear that the trend is not a healthy one. “It is unfortunate that the EC has been flooded with complaints this year from various political parties. The integrity of the EC is being questioned. The EC should function in such a way that it instills confidence in all political parties,” a senior constitutional expert stresses.

Within the EC, too, there are murmurs of discontent. “We have failed to implement our model code of conduct with uniformity. The feeling among political parties that the EC has been partial is justified,” an EC member says.

A former CEC accuses the present EC — consisting of Sampath, H.S. Brahma and Nasim Zaidi — as “one of the slowest bodies” ever. “The EC should be more even-handed — but it should also be firm,” he says. “It has done nothing to stop BJP’s Amit Shah from delivering hate speeches which he has been doing even after a warning from the EC.”

But the EC is also in a catch-22 situation — it’s damned if it acts, and damned it if doesn’t. “We always take action depending upon what is being brought to our notice for conducting free and fair polls,” Sampath clarifies.

What exactly is the job of the EC, apart from conducting the polls? “It has to conduct free and fair polls. In order to do this, the EC assumes many powers. There is no limit (to its powers) as such,” constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap says.

The EC, indeed, has a massive job to do — revolving 1,46,990 polling personnel deployed over 31,483 polling stations in 19,881 centres with 10 lakh electronic voting machines in this nine-phase poll.

But it can also be an effective body with teeth if it wants to — as was demonstrated when T.N. Seshan took charge as CEC in 1990. He controlled the rigging of votes — rife in many parts of the country — and ensured that Dalits voted without fear. During his tenure, he reviewed more than 40,000 cases of false elections and disqualified 14,000 potential candidates.

“Politicians showed their resentment against him but he was least bothered,” Kashyap says.

But the situation has changed since then. With threats of violence and the increasing numbers of voters and candidates, the election process has lengthened. The first election was on April 7, and the results will be out only on May 16. Sampath describes the election procedure in India as a “mammoth exercise”.

Many agree with him, pointing out that the EC has a bigger job than election bodies elsewhere. In the US, for instance, different bodies deal with the elections. The United States Election Assistance Commission, an independent agency, is in charge of, among other things, voting information, updated equipment, voter registration databases and other identification procedures. But there are separate bodies for governing elections in some of the states. In addition, there is an independent regulatory agency, the Federal Election Commission, whose job is to administer and enforce rules related to financing the elections.

“Given the size of our population, we are doing a stupendous job to make the election free and fair,” Kashyap says.

But when the bugle’s been sounded, who cares?

 

Fair or Foul

Mohua Sarkar Guin from Beadon Street, Calcutta, has been working at a government agency in Singapore for the past two years. Even though she is far away from her homeland, she wants to have her say in this year’s general elections.

 

“Casting my vote for the party I like or perhaps pressing the NOTA (none of the above) button is doing my bit to make my country a better place,” says Guin, a registered voter of Calcutta North West constituency.

 

But this year, she had to give voting a miss because the Supreme Court recently said that non-resident Indian (NRI) registered voters cannot vote from their overseas location, at least, not in this parliamentary polls. It upheld the Election Commission’s argument that allowing NRIs to vote from their overseas locations would lead to statutory and logistic impediments.

“It is disappointing that I cannot exercise my constitutional right to vote only because I am not physically present in the country on voting day,” Guin rues.

 

Guin is among an estimated 10 million Indians living abroad who will not be casting their votes this general elections. Noting that election for some phases has already been completed, a Supreme Court bench of Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan and Justice Vikramajit Sen said that permitting NRIs to vote in the remaining phases would open a “Pandora’s box” and that in the process some NRIs would have been allowed to vote and some not. The court was hearing a couple of petitions, including that of an NRI doctor, Shamsheer V.P., who said that 114 countries have adopted external voting and amongst it are 20 Asian countries.

“We are fighting for over a million NRIs. We want to ensure that NRIs would be able to vote from their overseas locations soon,” the petitioner’s lawyer, senior advocate Harish Salve, argues. The petitioner had contended that any distinction between those physically present at polling booths and those overseas would be a violation of Article 19(1) as well as Article 21 of the Constitution which guarantee freedom of speech and expression. But the court noted that the EC had already decided to constitute a committee to examine the feasibility of different options to facilitate voting by overseas NRI electors. The matter has been slated for hearing in August.

 

Constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap says that there are various ways in which NRIs could be allowed to vote from their overseas locations. “It could be through postal ballot, online voting, or voting at an Indian mission abroad. The forms for postal ballot can be made available either at the official website of the EC or can be provided through Indian consulates overseas. NRIs could post it back to the specified address. Such ballots can be marked and sent after the nomination closure date along with their identification proof as specified by the EC. Citizens should be allowed to use e-post service or the Indian embassy service,” Kashyap says.

More than 115 countries, including the US, UK, Canada, Germany and France, have granted the postal ballot facility to their nationals abroad. But the EC thinks that this is a Herculean task. “It would be a tedious task to post the ballot paper to Indians abroad. Plus, it is resource intensive which incurs lot of costs,” a senior EC official says.

But Salve and others are not buying such arguments. “There is nothing impossible in today’s world which is connected by the Internet. The EC must understand that the citizen’s involvement will increase the accountability of politicians,” he says. In the past, the names of NRIs used to get deleted from the voters’ list if they did not stay at their residence in India for six months at a stretch.

But an amendment was made in the People’s Representation Act in 2011 exclusively for NRIs, which allowed them to exercise their voting rights. But for that, they had to be registered in the electoral rolls of their respective constituency before leaving India and also be physically present on the day of the election. After this provision was made, among the 1,00,37,761 NRIs (as on May, 2012 as per the ministry of overseas Indian affairs) residing abroad, nearly 11,000 had enrolled as voters in the electoral rolls. The Kerala Assembly election on April 13, 2011, was the first one in which NRIs got to vote. But out of about 2 million Malayalees abroad, only 8,820 NRIs had their names on the electoral rolls, and out of that only 4,639 turned up to cast their votes. In 2013, Gujarat was the first state to conduct online voting for a local election.

Many NRIs feel that the provision of online voting should be there for state and parliamentary polls. “It will be convenient for working professionals, who are always on their laptops or smartphones. I believe this will improve the percentage of voting too. People who never bothered to cast their votes would also take a few minutes out of their busy schedules to vote. Eventually, this will reduce ‘false voting’,” Guin thinks.

NRIs argue that if the EC allows external agencies to handle the project, online voting can be perfectly feasible. Vijay Reddy, a US-based IT manager, even chalks out a strategy for this. “We have to build a system to track NRIs and then NRIs can mail their passports to the respective consulates and request absentee paper ballot or an e-ballot,” Reddy, a staunch Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter, says.

 

Political parties also have an eye on NRI votes.

In January, a delegation of BJP leaders led by Vijay Jolly met chief election commissioner V.S. Sampath and asked him to ensure that NRIs are able to vote in the Lok Sabha polls. “We know that we have a good vote base among NRIs but unfortunately we cannot tap them because they cannot travel to India specifically during polls. The cost of travel is too high. It is the duty of the EC to make arrangements for NRI voters,” says Jolly. A large number of NRIs has come out in support of the Aam Aadmi Party too. “We have 5,000 active NRI volunteers across 40 countries. Plus, more than one-third of our donations comes from NRIs. If they were given a chance to vote in their overseas locations, I think we would have a huge vote base,” Shalini Gupta, coordinator, AAP Global Supporters.

 

But some political experts are not too keen on the idea. “A voter who lives outside the constituency is insulated from the consequences of his or her political choices. A certain amount of democratic ‘moral hazard’ comes into play when voters who do not directly suffer the consequences of their vote make choices that affect voters who do,” political commentator Nitin Pai says.

 

The debate continues. But in these elections at least, the NRI voter who cannot be present at the polling booth has been left firmly out in the cold.



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  • Susmita Saha: Memories truly have a special place in the treasure trove called life. And your memories shine like jewels in this piece.
  • saimi: That is a lovely one Sonia.. and I can relate to so many things that you mention ...