Muslim votes key in India's crucial Karnataka election 

As smaller parties court the religious minority, the vote may split and hand victory to the pro-Hindu BJP in southern state
Muslim votes key in India's crucial Karnataka election 

Stiltwalkers wait to take part in the filming of a "Cast Your Vote" anthem in front of Vidhana Soudha, Karnataka's legislative assembly building, in Bengaluru on March 30. Karnataka is holding elections on May 12. (Photo by Manjunath Kiran/AFP)

Muslims are becoming the focus of elections in India's religion-sensitive Karnataka state, where next month's polls are expected to have national repercussions.

The state's ruling Indian National Congress party aims to consolidate Muslim votes to retain power, but the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would be glad to see those votes scattered between parties to create a setback for Congress.

Muslims, who just form 13 percent of 60 million people in the Hindu-majority state, can certainly tilt the electoral balance if they vote en masse, particularly in certain pockets where they are as high as 20 percent.

"Muslims have decided to support Congress in general," said Muslim software company employee Qadir K. Hussain in state capital Bengaluru.

Muslims are traditionally considered Congress supporters in Karnataka, where the party projects its Chief Minister Siddaramaiah as the champion of Muslim interests even though he is not a Muslim.

K. Azeejbhai, a Muslim man in Bengaluru, said Siddaramaiah has "proved to be a tough man as he stood firm" against Hindu groups who opposed birth anniversary celebrations for Tipu Sultan, a legendary 18th century Muslim ruler.

Siddaramaiah's tough decision won the confidence of Muslims. He also introduced a welfare scheme to help economically poor women from the Muslim and Christian communities.

"This is a big hit among poor Muslim families. Many Muslims believe Siddaramaiah is a truly strong leader of Muslims," said Azeejbhai.

Congress aims to win this election to boost the confidence of party workers for the next general election.

Congress came to power in Karnataka five years ago by unseating the BJP. A BJP victory in the state would establish the popularity of the Narendra Modi government nationally.

Several other parties are seeking Muslim votes, purportedly to keep the sectarian Hindu party at bay. But in effect they could split the Muslim vote and help defeat Congress or other secular candidates, handing victory to the BJP.

The new Social Democratic Party of India, whose base is among Muslims in coastal Karnataka, plans to put up candidates in seven of the 224 constituencies for the May 12 election.

Janata Dal (Secular), led by former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda, could also lure Muslims with his secular credentials.

Hard-line Muslim party All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen's chief Asaduddin Owaisi has announced that it will support Janata Dal (Secular) candidates.

Another newly floated outfit seeking to draw support among Muslims, especially women, is the All India Mahila Empowerment Party, founded and led by Nowhera Shaik, a tycoon in neighboring Andhra Pradesh. She has promised 50 percent of its candidates will be women.

"All these smaller and self-proclaimed Muslim parties contesting against Congress will only ensure victories for the BJP. They are self-destructive moves by the parties, incidentally run by Muslims only," said local Congress leader Azad Ebrahim in Bellary.

Mohammd Ezaz, a tailor at busy Chandnichowk Market, said "the challenge for sincere Muslim voters is not only to vote for Congress but also to ensure that the BJP cannot use Muslims directly and indirectly to defeat a Muslim candidate of a strong party like Congress."

The BJP has a "time-tested model of electoral practice" of ensuring a split in Muslim votes to influence the outcome, he said. This was a successful measure in 2014 parliamentary polls where Modi's party recorded a landslide victory across India.

The BJP is also making determined efforts to win some sections of Muslims.

Many burqa-clad Muslim women were among the crowd when some BJP nominees came to file the names as poll candidates. Several also raised pro-BJP slogans.

"Despite the campaign against the BJP, the party is not anti-Muslim as is made out," Nazzeela Ameen, 55, a mother of three, told

She said it was the BJP government that attempted to ban triple talaq (verbal divorce), which is prevalent among Indian Muslims. "At least this party sought to help Muslim women and will be bringing in a new law to ban triple talaq," she said.

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