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Page last updated at 00:15 GMT, Sunday, 19 April 2009 01:15 UK

India's all-important Muslim vote

By Suvojit Bagchi
BBC News, Delhi

Muslims in India
There will be more Muslim parties in this election than ever before

The Indian government's "war against terror" may cost the Congress party dearly in the election.

Arrests and alleged extrajudicial killings of Muslim youths have angered many in the Islamic community.

"People in power have branded us as terrorists and used us as a vote bank, this cannot go on," said the all-powerful cleric of Delhi's Jama Masjid mosque, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, in a recent press conference.

Speaking about the deaths of two Muslim students allegedly at the hands of police in South Delhi's Muslim area last October, Mr Bukhari said the Muslim community "wants justice".

'Safety and security'

This sense of injustice has resulted in the formation of new Muslim political parties over recent months.

Buranuddin Qasmi
Our primary aim is to erode the vote of Congress and then to win a few seats
Buranuddin Qasmi, Assam United Democratic Front

These parties believe in Indian parliamentary democracy and say they are working to "strengthen" it.

The party manifestos unanimously emphasise the "safety and security" of all communities, especially Muslims.

"The security of Muslims is one big issue, as after every blast in India a series of arrests of Muslim youths takes place," said a spokesperson for the influential All India Muslim Personal Law Board.

Muslim men were "systematically killed" in routine police encounters, he alleged.

Muslims comprise more than 13% of India's population and many are aggrieved that proportionately they only have about half that much representation in parliament.

More than two dozen Muslim political parties, big and small, are contesting these elections - almost double the figure of the last election.

The prominent players are the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), Ulema Council and Indian Peace Party in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Muslim Munettra Khazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the People's Democratic Council in West Bengal and veterans like the Muslim League and Indian National League in Kerala, the Democratic Secular Party in Bihar and the Majlis-e Ittihad al-Muslimin in Andhra Pradesh.

Abu Saleh Shariff
The minority affairs ministry has done literally nothing... with the exception of giving scholarships to Muslim students
Dr Abu Saleh Shariff, member of the Sachar Committee

Interestingly, even the staunchest supporters of these parties do not believe they are going to win.

"Our primary aim is to erode the vote of the Congress party and then to win a few seats," says Buranuddin Qasmi, an election analyst of the AUDF.

Meanwhile, many Muslims are questioning the logic behind the hasty launch of such parties.

They argue that a party like the Ulema Council will not even be able to emerge as a minor player because it lacks proper planning and goals.

Statistics show the parties that manage to win the votes of low caste people along with the Muslim vote bank have a strong chance of winning.

Since India's independence from British rule, Congress has been getting a sizeable chunk of Muslim votes at national level, largely because Muslims felt they had to prove their loyalty to India in early post-partition days, experts say.

In India, the Muslim League and its president, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, are held responsible for dividing India and creating Pakistan.

Muslims who stayed in India have traditionally supported Congress since independence "to prove their loyalty".

Empowered

Yogendra Yadav, the noted political commentator, feels that Muslim parties have "come of age".

"Fifty years into independence, the trauma of partition prevented Muslim political parties from conceiving a politics of their own," he says.

Muslims in Delhi
Many Muslims have questioned the proliferation of Islamic parties

"But they are slowly getting out of it. In the last decade or so they have been speaking for themselves - a very positive sign for Muslims as well as for democracy," Mr Yadav says.

The figures seem to support his claims - the proliferation of new political parties means that no one party is expected to get more than 60% of Muslim votes.

But Congress believes Muslims cannot be empowered by a Muslim party alone.

"Muslim parties have traditionally voted for Congress and will continue to do so, as they know only a majority party like Congress with secular credentials can empower them," says Imran-ur Rehman Kidwai, the chief of the party's Minority Cell.

He also brushed aside the fact that there is any kind of "insecurity among Muslim youth", calling it a "non-issue".

But whatever Mr Kidwai says, in at least one state a Muslim party is creating serious trouble for Congress.

The Islamic vote in Assam makes up more more than 20% of Muslim votes and appears to be making forays into Congress bastions.

The Hindu nationalist BJP - which Muslims tend to vote against - could win in the state.

But that has not stopped the AUDF from running anti-Congress campaigns.

Muslims at the at the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi
Congress is confident it can retain the bulk of the Muslim vote

"Enough of that - whenever Muslims vote against Congress, it is said to be in favour of the BJP. Can't we ever raise our voice because of right-wing parties like the BJP?" the AUDF's election analyst, Buranuddin Qasmi, asks.

The real Achilles' heel for Congress is the Sachar Report - a prime ministerial committee that recommended several measures to improve the living conditions of Muslims in India.

Initiated by Congress and tabled in parliament in 2006, the report has become central to the Indian Muslim community and is often quoted to voice their grievances.

During election campaigns, Muslim parties have pointed out that none of the recommendations of this report have been implemented.

"Congress and Manmohan Singh may have done a commendable job in commissioning a report of this magnitude. But the minority affairs ministry has done literally nothing to implement it, with the exception of giving scholarships to Muslim students," Dr Abu Saleh Shariff, member-secretary of the Sachar Committee Report, told the BBC.

However, Imran Kidwai says that 19 out of 22 of its recommendations have been implemented.

"Muslims will vote for Congress," he confidently predicted.



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