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Can Narendra Modi and the BJP win the Muslim vote bank?

It is election year in India, and the country's Muslim community is viewed as being able to wield a pivotal role in any national election. In this year's poll, what will drive the political choices of this potentially powerful vote bank?

INDIA: India's 176 million Muslims are generally considered to be an important "vote bank" that can help or deny victory to competing political parties.

A vote-bank refers to a loyal bloc of voters from a single community, who, en masse, back a political party during an election.

As India's 2014 election looms, the question is whether the so-called Indian Muslim vote bank can look beyond Narendra Modi's political record and the nationalist pro-Hindu proclamations of certain members of his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Modi is after all accused of deliberately allowing the sectarian mob violence that killed more than 1,000 people in 2002 to flare up and develop, soon after he became Gujarat state's chief minister.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: "I sincerely believe it will be disastrous for the country to have Narendra Modi as the next PM. If by a strong PM you mean someone to preside over the mass massacre of citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad, that is a measure of strength I don't think is needed."

There are even some within Mr Modi's own party who fear that his strident Hindu bias might alienate the Muslim community, raising the chance that they could vote as a block against a Modi-led BJP.

While Muslims constitute 13.7 per cent of India's population and are not traditional BJP voters, a block vote for any particular political party is extremely rare -- as was shown in the 2012 Gujarat Assembly elections when 31 per cent of Muslims voted for Narendra Modi.

Meenakshi Lekhi, a spokesperson for the BJP, said: "We don't believe in segregating Muslims and Hindus for votes. Our approach is the all-round development of the country -- irrespective of any one being Hindu or Muslim."

Observers tend to agree that as the Gujarat riots took place some 12 years ago, Muslim voters have moved past the issue and will vote prudently -- choosing development over communalism.

Shahid Siddiqui, a senior journalist and a former parliamentarian, said: "Today, Muslim youth, if they don't have job, will want employment -- irrespective of whosoever promises and gives it to them. Even Muslim bodies are warning the ruling Congress not to scare the Muslims in the name of Narendra Modi. So I think Muslims are going to look beyond Modi in the elections."

With BJP claims that the Gujarat state's economy under Mr Modi outpaced the national economy, growing about 10 per cent over the last 11 years, there is a strong economic argument for the so-called Muslim vote bank to see beyond the pro-Hindu rhetoric and consider a vote for Modi.

Narendra Modi's state of Gujarat has not witnessed any major communal riots since 2002. But will the Muslim community be able to see past the 2002 anti-Muslim vilence and consider his other political and fiscal merits? The answer to that will only be truly known when the election results are known.

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