NEW DELHI — As India's multi-phase election continues, the country’s Muslim minority could have a significant impact on the outcome of the vote in the biggest democratic election in world history.
Muslims are uneasy about the popularity of the prime ministerial candidate of the Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party, Narendra Modi.
The Imam of New Delhi’s Grand Mosque, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, urged Muslims to vote for the Congress Party, that currently is the ruling party in India.
Polling began this week in the first phase of voting that will continue over the next five weeks.
Muslims make up about 13 percent of the Indian population and in some constituencies the Muslim vote can play a key role in deciding the winner, analysts say.
Recent interviews with Muslims near the Grand Mosque showed division among voters.
Muhammad Anis, who sells fruit on a hand-drawn cart, said he will see who he likes before deciding who to back.
Another vendor, who gave his name as Haji, said that while he has a lot of respect for the Imam, he will – like most people – vote for the candidate he thinks is the best.
Analyst Hilal Ahmad researches voting trends among Muslims in India.
“It is impossible to even think that 180 million people make a unanimous decision and vote along the same lines,” said Hilal Ahmad, who researches voting trends among Muslims in India for the Center for Developing Societies of New Delhi.
Analyst Yashwant Deshmukh said there are about 35 constituencies where Muslims make up approximately 30 percent of the electorate.
“Then there are another 150 constituencies where Muslim population is close to 10 percent of the total voters,” said Deshmukh, the founder of a company called CVoter. “Which means, in the House of 543 seats, there are about 200 seats where Muslim vote can somewhat affect the outcome.”
But Deshmukh said that despite their ability to fairly impact the election outcome, Muslims in India should not be looked at as a monolithic body because they do not decide in unison which party to vote for.
“Based on our research, voters, both Hindu and Muslim, vote for the candidate they think will serve them best rather than voting along the communal or ethnic lines,” Deshmukh said,
He added that surveys have proven that Muslims cannot be swayed by anyone to vote for any particular party.
Researcher Ahmad said his institute found in previous surveys that 96 percent of Muslims considered poverty, unemployment and education as their major issues.
But experts say it is difficult to find a pattern of voting among Indian Muslims.
In the last elections in the state of Gujarat, four in 10 Muslims voted for Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi is viewed by many in India as a controversial figure because of what happened during one of the worst sectarian riots in country’s history in 2002, when hundreds of Muslims were killed in the state of Gujarat. Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat then and critics say he did little or nothing to stop the violence.
Deshmukh said the fact that Modi received significant Muslim votes in Gujarat shows however that Muslims will vote for who they think can best serve their constituency despite the violent past.
Still, analysts say it will be hard for Modi’s party, BJP, which has emerged as the biggest challenger to the ruling Congress Party, to woo Muslim voters nationwide.
Throughout the campaign Modi has campaigned on the economy and development and has tried to distance himself from the riots.