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Malaysia's Indian community - the third-largest ethnic group in the country - will play a pivotal role in the upcoming elections
Since taking power six decades ago Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional-led coalition faces its toughest electoral battle yet. Every vote counts in the May 5 elections as a resurgent opposition threatens to upset its applecart by promising to reverse its infamous race-driven policies. Barisan is pulling out all the stops and wooing back the 19-lakh strong Indian community to tip the scales against the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, led by Anwar Ibrahim.
For the first time since 1957, the Barisan combine - which is led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the principal Malay party in the country - lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority and also power in five states in 2008, after Malaysian-Indians shunned its ally Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).
The last elections were held a year after the Indian community organised an agitation against the government's discriminatory policies. The MIC managed to win just four seats against nine in 2005. But the community, a majority of whom are descendants of migrants from Tamil Nadu, had its biggest representation ever in the last parliament. Barisan supporters now say the opposition has failed the community by refusing to support their demand for affirmative action in favour of its race-neutral policies.
Prime Minister Najib Razak acknowledged in April that Indians had voted against the ruling combine and that this led to Barisan's dismal performance in 2008. He is said to have taken a keen interest in assuaging the community, which is now likely to be the deciding factor for around 20 seats in a 222-member parliament.
Indians are the country's third largest ethnic group and account for roughly 8 per cent of the population. They are spread across peninsular Malaysia, where the bulk of state and parliamentary seats are situated. "...( This) gives the community added value in terms of voters' strength. With the competitive nature of the elections, the Indian vote would be very decisive in determining the victors. . . , " says MIC leader P Kamalanathan. "Some are even of the opinion that the Indians are the veritable kingmaker. "
Barisan supporters maintain that the government has addressed the community's marginalisation, which includes issues like getting Indians their identity cards of citizenship. "To address this issue, a Special Implementation Task Force under MIC leader S Subramaniam's chairmanship has been constituted for fast-tracking the process and cutting red tape to solve this issue, " states Kamalanathan. "Since its inception, 4, 000 people have received their identity cards and another 10, 000 are under process. "
He mentions that the government has given the equivalent of Rs 18 crore for the construction and upgrading of Malaysia's many Hindu temples, besides Rs 100 crore for 500 Tamil schools in the last four years to reverse the 2008 setback. "Besides, the Prime Minister has increased the intake of Indian students into the government-run matriculation programmes by 200 per cent, " says Kamalathan. He also says the government has further allocated the equivalent Rs 896 crore to help Malaysian-Indian entrepreneurs.
The Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) that organised the 2007 street protests has also thrown its weight behind the ruling coalition. The opposition believes that its promise to eliminate racial discrimination would draw Indian voters towards it. But it turned down Hindraf leader P Waythamoorthy's six demands for addressing the community's problems, saying they want to do away with ethnic-based policies.
"Our manifesto encompasses the principles that they (Hindraf) articulated in their blueprint, and a lot of the key issues have been addressed in it, " Pakatan's R Sivarasa told Radio Australia. "Except that, when it comes to education and job opportunities, we address it on a non-racial basis, without specific reference to Indians as such. "
Waythamoorthy criticised Pakatan for not endorsing its blueprint. "It was the Indians who gave the other races the courage to vote for the opposition in 2008. But now arrogance has set in among some of the opposition, " Waythamoorthy recently told The Straits Times, a Singapore newspaper.
"We said there was no need to, because there were aspects of the blueprint which we had problems with, because it specifically focussed on Indians. We said we can't. We have a multiracial paradigm and on principle, we will not deviate from that, " said Sivarsa.
Yet, Kamalanathan maintains that Razak recognises the Indian community, which boasts of some of the country's richest billionaires as well as its poorest citizens, and its predicaments and has made "sincere and comprehensive effort" to solve their issues. He points out that the PM wants to rectify the mistakes that left the community behind in the wave of development.
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