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Friday, September 3, 1999 Published at 00:29 GMT 01:29 UK

World: South Asia

Congress loses Muslim support

The Muslim vote is crucial in nearly one-third of India's 543 constituencies

By the BBC's Yubaraj Ghimire

Political parties in India always seek to secure the vote of the Muslim minority, which has traditionally favoured the secular Congress party.

Muslims account for more than 12% of India's electorate.

Indian Elections 99
Full results
But the failure of the Congress government to protect an ancient mosque in Ayodhya, in India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh, more than six years ago alienated many Muslims from the party.

Since then, the Congress has been trying to claw back its Muslim support base. But ahead of the forthcoming general election, Muslims still appear reluctant to vote for the party.

Electoral force

Muslims have a sizeable presence in India.

[ image: Muslims have traditionally supported Congress]
Muslims have traditionally supported Congress
In at least 174 of India's 543 parliamentary constituencies, the community accounts for at least 15% of the population.

And as the election approaches, they remain eager to see that the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is kept out of office.

But observers say that in this election, the Muslim vote will not be as consolidated as in the past. Instead, the minority's traditional vote for the Congress party will splinter into support for any party opposed to BJP rule.

So why have so many Muslims defected from the party they supported for so long?

Growing hostility

Many of India's Muslims voted for the Congress in the first five general elections, after independence in 1947.

But during the 18 month Emergency, imposed by Indira Gandhi in June 1975, a large number of Muslims in several northern states were forcibly sterilised.

The controversial population control measure drained the Congress of the community's support in the 1977 general election, which marked the party's first defeat.

The community's hostility towards Congress was even more visible 15 years later, when the Congress government was reluctant to use force to protect the 464-year old Babri mosque in Ayodhya.

Ayodhya episode

The demolition of the mosque on December 6,1992 by militant Hindus was a turning point in relations between the Congress party and India's Muslim community.

[ image: The demolition of the mosque was the turning point]
The demolition of the mosque was the turning point
The destruction of the mosque, and the construction of a Hindu temple on its site, were included in the BJP's manifesto.

Communal riots in the wake of the demolition claimed more than 2,000 lives, most of them Muslims.

Although the Congress party has since apologised for its inaction, it has failed to regain a substantial number of its Muslim supporters.

Fragmented vote

After the Ayodhya incident, Muslims began voting for regional parties, rejecting Congress.

[ image:  ]
Now, for the first time, a Muslim seminary in Uttar Pradesh has come out in favour of the Congress party.

It has called for the defeat of what it terms the forces of communalism, a reference to the BJP.

But the Muslim vote is still fragmented.

Javed Habib, convenor of a committee campaigning to rebuild the mosque, says the community should vote for individuals based on their secular credentials, regardless of which party they represent.

Mr Habib even said he would be prepared to vote for BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee, who spoke out against the destruction of the Babri mosque.

But his willingness to support the BJP is rare among India's Muslims.

Rather, the Muslim vote in this election is likely to demonstrate that the issue of secularism is a vital one, but that Congress is no longer seen as the only representative of a secular India.

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