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Last Updated Tuesday July 07 2020 10:04 PM IST

EC's fresh conundrum: Can PIOs campaign for polls in India?

Sachidananda Murthy
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EC's fresh conundrum: Can PIOs campaign for polls in India?

An old legal axiom is that if the law is silent on a particular point, then the ambiguity should continue. But the Election Commission has decided to check why the poll laws in the country are silent on whether foreigners, especially persons of Indian origin (PIO), can campaign for candidates in elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies.

The piquant query of the commission is making several ministries in the central government scratch their heads as neither the Constitution nor the two laws on conduct of elections have said anything on this subject. The laws are clear that only Indian citizens can vote and contest in the elections, a privilege which has been given to non-resident Indians by virtue of their citizenship.

But the query of the commission assumed significance after hundreds of Sikhs, who are citizens of Canada, United States and United Kingdom campaigned in the elections to Punjab assembly last year, most of them supporting Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidates.

There had been murmurs that many of these Sikhs are overseas supporters of the movement for a separate Khalistan. However, the commission did not receive a formal complaint, but the question was asked by the chief electoral officer of Punjab, who wondered whether foreigners can be allowed to campaign when they had no right to vote or contest. The query seemed legitimate as the United States is embroiled in a controversy over the Russian interference in the American presidential elections, which has led to the premature departure of president Donald Trump's national security adviser, and prosecution of several members of the campaign team which helped Trump defeat Hilary Clinton.

Long ago, there had been complaints of foreign hands interfering in domestic elections, when some opposition parties alleged that a special ink from Soviet Union was used in the 1971 Lok Sabha elections, which allowed manipulation of ballot papers to help Indira Gandhi create a wave in the country. But both the Election Commission and the courts had dismissed the allegation as unfounded. There had been complaints that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had interfered in the Tamil Nadu elections in 1980s to defeat the AIADMK, which had been badly divided after M G Ramachandran's death.

The Law Ministry, which formulates the legal position of the government, is checking with the Ministry of External Affairs on the international practice and whether other countries allow members of the diaspora to campaign in elections. Several democracies like Bangladesh, the Philippines and Mexico have large diasporas which maintain strong links to the homeland, like the Indian diaspora.

While there is no rule on the citizenship of the campaigners and even speakers at election meetings, political parties are prohibited from receiving foreign donations in their accounts. However, non-resident Indians have contributed to the coffers of political parties.  

If the Law Ministry agrees that there is need to prevent PIOs from taking part in future election campaigns, but then the canvassers may have to carry their Aadhaar cards and produce it to election officials to prove Indian citizenship. But there are interpretations that Aadhaar card is not the perfect proof of Indian citizenship, as it can be issued to all those who reside in India. The Punjab official's query may open a Pandora's box.

Read more: Columns | India, Indira and Poojary: How Karunakaran scored a goal in Karnataka

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