Low NRG voter turnout is an issue in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat

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Business-minded Gujaratis living abroad seem to have given a thumbs-down to politics in their home state.

Marathon efforts for the past one year by the Election Commission of India (ECI), the Narendra Modi government and various political parties to persuade Gujarat-born non-resident Indians for registering themselves as voters have failed to yield results.

Assembly polls in Gujarat are only two months away but hardly four of the 10-million-odd non-resident Gujaratis (NRGs) have filled the relevant Form 6A, for applying for inclusion of their names in the electoral rolls. Shobhana Patel, (51) her son Sawant (28) and daughter Phalguni (26) from Kenya made it to the electoral rolls of Gujarat as late as August 31. Earlier, just one woman NRI voter from Kutch featured in the electoral rolls this year.

“The EC has started online registrations and has also appointed an election emissary, Dhwanit Thakker (a radio jockey), who addressed the 50,000-strong NRG population at the Global Gujarati conference in August this year. He extensively tried to push the cause of NRI votes by talking about their voting facility provided by the EC,” said Anita Karwal, chief electoral officer, Gujarat.

Officials in Anand and Kheda say the prohibitive costs of travelling to cast vote dissuades NRGs from voting.

Kheda’s deputy election officer Rajnikant Valvi said, “We are to hold meetings with organisations and associations of NRGs to encourage people living abroad to come and vote.”

According to Nagin Patel, a US citizen and chairman of Charotar Moti Satyavis Leuva Patidar Samaj, nearly 6,000 families of Anand district live in the US, Britain, Australia and African countries. Similarly, a huge number of Patels from Nadiad and surrounding villages in neighbouring Kheda district have settled overseas, according to Rakesh Rao, president of Kheda district Panchayat.

Most of them remain Indian citizens and have the voting rights but they hardly travel to India to vote, said Patel, adding, “A return ticket to the US costs 1,400-1,500 dollars. I am sure many would like to cast their vote if they are given the option of postal ballots.”

Harshad Patel, a British citizen from Nadiad said, “Many people want to vote. However, politicians do not reach out to them since they know these people are educated and cannot be mislead.”
Anand BJP president Dipak Patel said, “ They (NRGs) do not affect poll prospects of the party. Even if we reach out to them, they are not willing to come and vote.”

This is even as Chief Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to reach out to NRGs. A couple of months ago, he had urged NRGs to exercise their franchise while addressing them through a video conference at Chaalo Gujarat 2012.

The ECI had not only posted on its website the necessary information for non-resident Indians having the Indian passport but also published the details in newspapers as news and advertisements.
Chief Minister Modi himself had also addressed Gujaratis settled abroad through video-conferences and made passionate appeals to exercise their franchise and ‘vote for development’.
The Non-Resident Gujaratis Foundation, part of the state government’s NRI division, which has a data of 68,000 NRGs, had also made its own efforts to inform them about their voting rights.
Even during the preparations of the voters’ list, enumerators who found the houses of NRGs locked had requested their neighbours to inform the landlords living abroad to complete the formalities for voter registration.

Staffers in the office of Gujarat’s Chief Electoral Officer say there have received just a handful of inquiries from NRGs. Congress leader J V Momin told this newspaper NRGs had often complained to him that about voter identity cards not being easily available.

Gujaratis comprise a sizable population in the 1.8-million-strong Indian community in the United Arab Emirates. NRGs, indeed, number one million in the US and 700,000 in the UK with a good number of them also found in Australia, Canada, South Africa, Malaysia, Portugal, France, Oman, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, Fiji, New Zealand and the Maldives.

The EC has started online registrations but does not allow postal ballots or e-voting for NRGs who have to come personally to Gujarat to cast their vote.

Also, most NRGs remain Indian citizens and have the voting rights but they hardly travel to India to vote. Even the political parties understand this economics well and know that even if they reach out to them, the NRGs cannot affect their poll prospects.

Yet, the ruling BJP has found out another way to win votes. The saffron party has been persuading persons of Indian origin to appeal to their family members and relatives back home to support it at the hustings.

The party’s US affiliate, the Overseas Friends of the BJP, has been busy creating a buzz about the elections by pointing out the development in their home state during Modi’s 11-year rule but voters being unpredictable, whether the Chief Minister will get a third term in office is anybody’s guess.


October 2012

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