New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday revived the debate on voting rights for non-resident Indians (NRIs) by signalling that they would get a chance to cast their votes in the next general election.

The number of people of Indian origin is estimated to be around 25 million and Mint could not independently ascertain how many of these were NRIs and hence eligible to vote. The voting population in the 15th general election that concluded in May was estimated at 714 million.

Revived hopes: PM Manmohan Singh (2nd from left) releases an investment tool kit for Indian diaspora as chief guest Lord Khalid Hameed of Hampstead looks on, during the inaugural session of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. Subhav Shukla / PTI

Addressing the inaugural session of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, the annual Indian diaspora event, Singh said: “I recognize the legitimate desire of Indians living abroad to exercise their franchise and to have a say in who governs India. We are working on this issue and I sincerely hope that they will get a chance to vote by the time of the next regular general elections."

Singh also appealed to overseas Indians to return home to join politics and public life.

Around 1,500 delegates from 50-plus nations are attending the conclave that the Centre hosts annually to connect with its diaspora in 130 countries.

The United Progressive Alliance government had earlier cleared amendments to Section 20 of the Representation of the People Act under which NRIs could get voting rights; this would have enabled them to get their names registered in the electoral roll of the constituency of their place of residence in India, the first step ahead of casting their vote.

Subsequently, a Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in February 2006 and was referred to the parliamentary standing committee on law and justice, which presented its report in August that year.

Replying to a question in Parliament in the just concluded winter session, overseas Indian affairs minister Vayalar Ravi disclosed that the law ministry was examining the Bill.

According to an official in the Election Commission of India (ECI), the autonomous body that conducts polls in the country, no concrete decision on the proposal has been taken yet.

“The present rules suggest that one has to be a resident of India for enrolling his/her name in the voters’ list. NRIs, by the very definition of their name, are not eligible for this. The residential qualification (clause) needs to be amended for providing them the rights. But it can’t do away with that with a blind amendment," the official said, adding that such a move would lead to a situation in which people get their names registered in multiple places. “There has to be exception in the case of NRIs and it has to be specified where they are going to register their names for voting rights," he said.

The ECI official as well as political analysts said the implementation would involve a lot of complexities—both in enrolment and in balloting. “The NRIs can either do postal balloting or can cast their votes in embassies," the official said.

“It is inevitable as they are Indian citizens too. But one has to see how it will get implemented. If it is postal balloting, it would have to include those inside the country too. One cannot be denied voting rights if he is working somewhere else in India, not in the US or other outstations," political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta said.

As of now, postal balloting is permitted for personnel of the armed/paramilitary forces and state armed police forces who are on outstation posting, people employed in embassies and those who are put on election duty in places other than their territories.

The ECI official said the poll panel had taken an “informal decision" that NRIs could be allowed to enroll their names in the address shown in their passports.

Constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap said: “It is a political decision. Constitutionally, it is feasible and you just have to amend the law and all the difficulties can be resolved too."