To speak to Nagender Chindam, you might not think he had just won the vote for an electorate the size of the population of Greece. But that’s just what he did, securing a decision at India’s Supreme Court last month to ensure that the 10 million-plus non-resident Indians (NRIs) around the world would be able to participate in future elections using absentee ballots.
“It’s quite a big deal for us and for the government too, but it’s not a big achievement for us,” said Chindam, a modest 33-year-old IT worker from Secunderabad in India, now living with his family in Milton Keynes in England. “It’s a big achievement for the institutions of India, because they’re going to do it now. Providing a postal ballot for over 10 million people is not easy. They need to print off 10 million ballot papers, they need to send out 10 million emails if they are going to do it by email.”
Chindam, founder of the campaign group Pravasi Bharat, spent the past two years petitioning, protesting and building a social media campaign in an effort to change Indian law. He even went on hunger strike. “The significance for us is that a group of ordinary people, eight to 12 guys who’ve been with me in Pravasi Bharat, formed a team,” he said. “We struggled a lot. We’ve moved a system. And a system can be moved if it is a democracy already, so India is a democracy, we’re all very proud about it.”
Pravasi Bharat’s victory should be a big story, but few in the media have paid attention. “Some people might argue, what’s 10 million votes from a 1 billion population?” said Chindam. “But in general India is a proud democracy. So we’ve asked India to further move forward. Even though it’s doing well, we’ve asked it to stretch itself so that anyone holding an Indian passport can vote without any obstacles, and they did it, the system allowed it.”
It was arguably Chindam’s infectious belief in democracy, and how it should be extended to those without the option of returning to India to vote, that gave the campaign the drive it needed. It was no simple task to get to where they are today. “We called on the Government of India to do this, and since we did not get a reply we asked the Election Commission, and since then we did not get a reply we went to the Supreme Court,” he said. “Ultimately none of us is a millionnaire here in Pravasi Bharat, and none of us is a celebrity face. But the beauty of democracy is being able to move the system, and that is what we are proud about.”
In early January, the Electoral Commission submitted a 50-page report to the Supreme Court detailing options for NRI voting. Soon afterwards, the court issued its directive, giving central government just eight weeks to change the law. It’s now in the hands of politicians, but Chindam was optimistic that the reform would pass without controversy.
“For such a technologically advanced country with such huge resources, we could easily do it, so there are no obstacles as such,” he said. “But the beauty of our campaign group is that it is not done by one single person. The strength in our campaign lies in that we can be watchdogs until the system is correctly implemented. It’s not just, ‘we’ve done this so our mission is over’. We will still be there to make it successful, until we have our postal ballots in our hands.”
The campaign saw a broad range of tactics, from grassroots protests to the official petitioning of state bodies. Most notable perhaps was Chindam’s 48-hour hunger strike by the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in London’s Tavistock Square in January of last year. Did he think the protests helped his cause in the end? “Yes, we wouldn’t have achieved our goal if we had directly approached the Supreme Court,” he said, citing the fact that theirs was the first case accepted by the court on ex-pat voting rights.
“There was a policy in the Supreme Court and all these institutions not to accept Indian ex-pats’ voting rights,” he said. “The reason, what we are guessing, is that India has a democracy which has sustained since Independence. If you look at India, it’s surrounded by different nations which are not democracies, or not as a good as the Indian democratic system. So the guess is that the Indian system didn’t want to take the risk. This was the first petition accepted by the Supreme Court, and the reason, we fully believe, was that we did not directly approach the court. We went to the court with a strong foundation. We’ve made demonstrations, we’ve raised an online petition, we’ve approached the Electoral Commission.”
Throughout the campaign, Pravasi Bharat drew on the memory of independent India’s leading icons. “Mahatma Gandhi, who we treat as the father of the nation, and Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who wrote the constitution, were non-resident Indians like us,” he said. “If Gandiji and Ambedkarji would have lived at this point, they would miss the opportunity to vote. We made such an important point, and I believe that’s what led the Supreme Court to agree our position. So the campaigning has helped very much.”
Chindam and his co-campaigners in Pravasi Bharat pulled off a difficult task. I asked him whether, at the beginning of the campaign, he really ever thought they could win. “Honestly, I think without confidence we wouldn’t have reached this stage,” he said. “Without that confidence we wouldn’t have started. But the curiosity was always there. We are not big people with big personalities, but we still had the fundamental belief. I fundamentally believe in democracy, where small people can do big things.”
What did surprise Chindam, though, was the timescale of the victory. Such a large change, it might be assumed, could be expected to take significantly longer to enact. “I thought this would take five to six years,” he said, and referred to another recently successful campaign, the introduction of a “None of the above” option on ballot papers during last year’s general election. “A non-profit organisation like us fought for it, and it took them five years,” he said. “Ours took one and a half to two years. So I am very lucky.”
Of course, not everyone agrees with the change. Covering the campaign last year in Mumbai, I came across several people who would claim that NRIs should not be given absentee voting rights because they wouldn’t have to live with the consequences. But Chindam was confident that the vast majority of people were behind him. “The term ‘NRI’ is very loosely used,” he said. “Technically, NRI means an Indian who is living abroad. But it’s used for people of Indian origins, and people who adopt other countries. We are not talking about other citizens, we are talking about our citizens. So people might not agree, they might think, OK, an NRI left the country, they are not bothered about our nation.
“I agree with them that if we choose to be citizens of another nation, we obviously need to lose our rights. What I am saying is that we still deserve the right to vote, and I think if I explained this point to someone who disagreed, they would definitely agree with me. In anything there will always be some disagreement, which in this case would be one or two per cent, I would guess.”
Did party political boundaries cause any problems among those supporters? “I am very proud of that aspect,” he said. “We were very clear that when we are fighting for our fundamental rights we should cut off those boundaries. Organizations supported us, BJP supported, Aam Aadmi supported. I used to ask them, OK, you support BJP, Aam Admi or Congress, but you can’t vote for them from abroad, what is the reason of supporting them? First of all, we have to secure this voting right. Most of them agreed with me and joined with us in Pravasi Bharat, even though their ideologies were different.
“When we were celebrating this result, the BJP went there, Aam Admi went there, and I said in that meeting, ‘I’m proud we have united every political ideology. This is the only platform where every political ideology has come onto one stage.’”
The next battle for Chindam and others will be encouraging Indian citizens all around the world to make the most of the new policy. He appealed to NRIs not to waste the opportunity. “I would tell everyone to register as a non-resident Indian voter as soon as possible,” he said. “After this last stage is complete, which will be in the next couple of weeks, the Electoral Commission is going to release the steps to register and the steps to vote. My appeal to Indians all across the world is, please use your fundamental right to have your say and be part of our country’s democracy.
“Every democrat dreams of a proper democracy in their country. A fundamental right is now not going wasted, whether that’s one vote, two votes, or in our case over 10 million votes.”