NRI voting should not be made too easy

How to raise political engagement without raising moral hazards

The connectedness of the Information Age made the issue of political rights of expatriate citizens more salient. The question of “should Non-Resident Indians get the right to vote?” was the topic of endless university canteen discussions, Usenet flame wars and online discussion forums before the Representation of People (Amendment) Bill, 2010 was passed to allow Non-Resident Indians to come back and vote in their constituencies. Many NRIs came back to vote in the May 2014 elections, and many others worked in the campaigns.

There are demands for more—that NRIs should be allowed an absentee ballot, to vote from their foreign domicile. This is sometimes coupled with the demand for internet-voting, a feature request that is common to both resident and non-resident Indians. While both these demands enjoy a certain degree of popularity, few have taken a hard look at the implications of doing so.

NRIs are citizens of India, many of who have retained their citizenship despite the lure and the attraction of a foreign passport. They have ideas, knowledge, skills, perspectives, capital and human resources that add to the quality of India’s politics, policy and industry. Leaving them out of the political process is unfair and wasteful. They must have a political voice.

The Election Commission has cited logistical challenges as the reason for not setting up polling booths in foreign countries. However, the real problem is more than just logistics. Absentee ballots have a moral hazard: the absentee voter is not around in the constituency to directly benefit from or suffer the consequences of his political decision. This insulation from the direct effects of one’s own voting decision weakens both the representativeness and accountability of the democratic process. The NRI has insurance too: if he does not like the outcomes in India, he can choose to continue foreign residency or take foreign citizenship. Of course, resident Indians can emigrate too, but it’s a lot more difficult.

Empirically, Diaspora politics tends to focus on the emotional and the ideological, and is often hardline and uncompromising. [Devesh Kapur’s latest paper on the political effects of international migration puts this in perspective]. The resident population has a greater need to balance the emotional with the quotidian and the ideological with the practical, so it makes a lot of pragmatic compromises.

The 2010 amendment to election rules balances, to a certain extent, the electoral inclusion of NRIs and managing the moral hazard arising from it. In economic terms, only those NRIs whose expected value of the benefit of voting exceeds the cost of a return trip to their polling booth will vote. The height of this hurdle protects the resident electorate from the political choices of their expatriate compatriots. It also means that richer NRIs are more capable of crossing this hurdle, and therefore, more likely to affect electoral outcomes in India. This is a price that must be paid to address the moral hazard of allowing NRIs to vote.

Allowing NRIs to vote in Indian embassies and consulates abroad lowers the hurdle. Internet voting reduces the hurdle almost to zero. The moral hazard problem gets worse with overseas polling stations and very acute with internet voting. Therefore, given the nature of dynamic compromises that characterise the politics of a highly diverse, plural India, it is prudent not to consciously stir up the pot by reducing the economic cost of voting.

That’s why internet voting, even for resident voters, is a bad idea. The inconvenience of standing in a queue for the time that it takes to cast a vote ensures that only those who value their vote more than that will turn up to do so. Yes, this system disproportionately favours those who put a low value on their time (in other words, those with lower incomes), but it is fair in that there is nothing to prevent anyone who values the subjective political outcome more than his subjective cost of voting to turn up and vote.

Another problem with absentee ballots is the question of constituency. Which constituency should an Indian citizen who’s lived in New York for 10 years belong to? She might have friends and relatives in one constituency—but putting her on the voters list of that constituency is against the principle of domicile-based voting. Many resident Indians live in one constituency but have family links in other constituencies, but they get on the electoral rolls of the constituency they are resident in. (Some resident voters do prefer to vote in their native constituencies, which the electoral system currently ignores.) Domicile-based electoral rolls are important for representation and accountability, and our New York-based voter might not know (or care) how bad public services are in her Indian native town are for her to hold the elected representative accountable.

Current electoral rules do not address the constituency question. One way would be to create a NRI constituency in the Rajya Sabha and the upper houses of state legislatures, and allow all NRIs to pick a representative who will voice their interests. We might need several NRI seats because different NRI populations have different needs. For a half-serious take on what might result, see why the sun does’t set on the Indian Republic.

It is important that all Indian citizens are included in India’s political system. After the 2010 amendment, a better balance has been struck. Further easing of the rules of voting is not advisable. Hurdles that impose economic costs on voters are not a bad thing—voting should not be made cheap.

Pax Indica: The sun doesn’t set on the Indian Republic

A plan for world domination

Today’s Pax Indica column was translated from the original Malayalam, today’s global lingua franca, into a fringe Western European language called English so that people in the past could learn about the future of their great nation.

Read the whole thing on Yahoo!. The following is an excerpt:

It was Jagmohan Mehta, a bright spark from Navi Pune (then called Boston) who first raised the famous slogan, “No Taxation Without Representation!” If the Indian government wanted to tax NRIs, he argued, it must also give them the right to vote, and seats in the Indian Parliament. Such was the simple force of this argument that in less than a week, it was a ubiquitous banner on the blogs (a quaint early twenty-first century form of self-indulgence) of NRIs around the world. In sympathy, activists fighting for the independent sovereign Liberal Republic of Bombay suspended their agitation and lit their perfumed candles for the NRI Cause instead. Members of New Delhi’s civil society–some say as many as fifty–turned up in large numbers to express support for India’s growth to be inclusive of NRI taxes. The third United Progressive Alliance (UPA 3) government, under Prime Minister Kapil Sibal, immediately constituted a Empowered Group of Ministers with Civil Society Participation (EGOM) to study the demands and propose recommendations in a time bound manner.

The EGOM supported the idea of creating a new type of political unit called the Extra-territorial State of India. It was a remarkable idea: the Extra-territorial State need not be part of the sovereign territory of the Union of India. It could be just about anywhere. As long as there were sufficient numbers of NRIs located in any geographical region anywhere in the world, that region qualified to be an Extra-territorial State of India. It was decided, over a particularly animated tea-break, that a sufficient number of NRIs for this purpose was 96,580.

It was decided that Extra-territorial States would be treated on par with territorial States in every way. They would form their own governments, have past-their-prime-but-loyal-to-party politicians as Governors, the authority to legislate over subjects in the State and Concurrent lists and participate in Ranji and Duleep trophy tournaments. (IPL, as you know, follows a different process of admitting teams). They would get funds from the Centre to implement programmes named after Nehru and various Gandhis, including NREGA. They would also elect representatives to the Lok Sabha based on the population, with one Lok Sabha MP for every 96,580 persons. Rajya Sabha seats were calculated by some weird logic no one really understood, but since each Extra-territorial State would get at least one Rajya Sabha seat, no one really complained.

Thus was created the first modern global nation-state of which there are so many today. But in the early 21st century it was a novel experiment. Most people agreed it would collapse within a decade. How could a nation with so much diversity and so vast a spread hold together? Little did they know how wrong they would be.

The first five Extra-territorial States thus created were Puthiya Keralam, New Jullundur, Jersey Pradesh, Paschima Kannada and Kizhakku Tamilnad. [Yahoo!]

Assisting the unfortunate Pravasi Bharatiyas

The Indian government’s programmes to assist distressed workers and women overseas is a step in the right direction

Protecting Indian nationals wherever they might be in the world should be a key objective of India’s foreign policy. While India has demonstrated its commitment towards securing the lives of its nationals during major crises—like the evacuation of expatriate Indians from the Middle East during the 1990 Gulf War and the more recent conflict in Lebanon—assisting citizens in quotidian situations has not been its strong point. [Due apologies to our foreign service officers who help stranded Indian families in remote corners of the world]. Among those who most need the Indian government’s assistance are low-wage workers and women.

So it is good to see the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs do something beyond organising grand pow-wows and handing out awards to prominent non-resident Indians. Not only has it announced programmes to help distressed Indian workers and women, it has made the involvement of local NRI communities essential for their success.

The Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF) covers distressed workers in United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Malaysia, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Syria, Lebanon, Thailand, and Iraq. The government’s financial contribution is tiny—between Rs 500,000 and Rs 1.5 million each—but constitutes seed funding. The intention is to make the fund self-sustaining through charges for consular services at Indian missions, as well as voluntary contributions by NRI communities. Similarly, the scheme to provide financial and legal assistance to Indian women deserted by their husbands in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Gulf covers expenses up to US$1000, and is administered in partnership with community NGOs. Seventeen women have been helped so far—ten from Australia alone.

It is a good idea for the government to jump start the programme and rely on community funding for its financial sustainability. More importantly, the Indian government’s role should be to back the programmes with diplomatic clout and political resolve. Putting the onus on Indian missions abroad ensures that the ambassadors have control and are accountable for the results in the areas under their care. A degree of competition among them wouldn’t hurt at all. More importantly, getting NRI communities to chip in financially helps build social capital creating avenues for the relatively well-to-do members of the community to help the more unfortunate ones. This should also lead to community monitoring, administration and performance audit of these programmes.

And once the Indian government learns enough in these selected countries, it should extend these programmes across the globe.