Thursday, October 22, 2009

Shift of Indian votes: Dire warning for Pakatan

R Mutharasan

The majority of Indian votes shifting to Barisan Nasional in the recent Bagan Pinang by-election has led to an interesting question – will this be a permanent trend in future by-elections and the next the general election or is Bagan Pinang a case in isolation?

The results of Bagan Pinang is not surprising, but what is shocking is the majority Isa Samad was able to achieve despite Pakatan Rakyat, namely PAS, mounting a credible challenge.

Although there are many reasons for Isa’s performance, one key factor that contributed to the increase in the majority is the shift of Indian votes for BN.

Retaining a seat by more than 5,000 votes that was lost in 2008 by just 2,000 over votes clearly indicates that it is going to be anything but easy for Pakatan to overthrow BN in the next general election.

However, at the same time it looks like too many things are being read concerning the victory of BN in Bagan Pinang without realising the advantages BN had.

The first and foremost was Isa’s popularity with the Indian voters, who saw no reason to cast their ballots against him.

His previous acquaintances and political connections with key Indian leaders from the state and the local Indian community also helped him penetrate into the Indian vote bank.

Najib’s winning strategies

At the same time, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s concerted and well-planned strategies to win over the hearts and minds of the Indian community and to convince them that the BN leadership is seriously considering their plight, also helped in the shift of Indian votes in Bagan Pinang towards BN.

Some may claim that this is a mere lip-service by BN, but there is no doubt that since taking over the leadership of BN, Najib has given the impression that he has drawn up a specific agenda to help and uplift the Indian community.

The opposition parties and the political pundits know that Umno is in a desperate situation now to retain its political supremacy and hence is making concessions and compromises to achieve its goal when it comes to dealing with non-Malay voters. For example, since taking office Najib has changed one major BN policy and that is dealing directly with Indian NGOs and other Indian political factions instead of always following the age-old tradition of using MIC as the channel to reach the Indian community.

Najib did not stop at that. He took a walk along Jalan Tun Sambanthan (commonly known as Brickfields) to personally mingle with the Indian community who frequent the area for their varied activities.

Next, he visited the Batu Caves temple and in his speech promised to return there for Thaipusam, a tradition followed by his father and former prime ministers but discontinued by Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Najib’s visit to the Batu Caves temple is also seen by the Indian community as a sort of redemption for the police brutality committed during the Hindraf rally in 2007 where the temple premises became one of the venues for the epochal public rally.

Najib also personally presented a grant of RM1 million to the Sri Murugan Centre headed by M Thambirajah, an NGO which for years has been helping poor Indian students excel in public examinations by running tuition centres all over the country. Then there was the special allocation of Amanah Saham unit trusts for the Indian community.

The final and most striking gesture was the launching of the Malaysian Makkal Sakti Party (MMSP) headed by former Hindraf coordinator RS Thanenthiran.

This move which took place just one day ahead of the Bagan Pinang by-election had a profound effect on the minds of the Indian community in Bagan Pinang and elsewhere.

It must also be pointed out that Najib went ahead to launch MMSP despite public opposition from MIC. There were also speculations that the MIC leadership had privately coerced Najib not to launch MMSP as it was seen as an alternative political force to MIC and therefore he should not endorse it.

Najib’s launch of MMSP changed the mindset of the Indian community on two fronts. The first was that the prime minister himself was launching a new Indian-based political party comprising former members and leaders of Hindraf, a movement which was banned by Najib’s predecessor Abdullah.

Although the ban on the movement still remains, launching a party comprising former leaders of Hindraf and approving a name for the party which was once the slogan or mantra of Hindraf sent a message to the Indian community that the new BN government does not harbour any animosity towards Hindraf.

Next, by officially launching MMSP, Najib also drove home a clear message to the Indian community that the BN government will not deal with MIC alone when it comes to Indian political issues. At the launch, he also declared that he is not the prime minister for only those from BN parties but for all Malaysians.

At the same time, the some sections of the Indian community also realised that what Najib was doing was merely encouraging the division of the Indian community further into smaller political factions, thereby weakening them for Umno-BN’s own political mileage.

Again this is not Najib’s fault but that of MIC which always kept many young and active Indians outside the party which resulted in them joining other parties like IPF, PKR, PPP, Gerakan and DAP. To put it another way, the Indians were already politically divided when MMSP was launched.

Some have been also alleging that a splinter group from Hindraf headed by Thanenthran has hijacked the name ‘Makkal Sakti’ and has joined BN for their own personal political motives and agenda.

However, despite all these developments, the fact remains that the prime minister is prepared to go down to the ground to deal with Indian political issues and is prepared to listen and recognise other political factions like MMSP. This gesture caught the attention of the Indian community and impressed them.

Kampung Buah Pala

On the contrary, Pakatan despite capturing five key states that house more than 50 percent of the total Indian population in the country did not have a specific agenda for the Indian community or a well-thought out strategy to woo the Indian voters although they had done many good deeds by helping Tamil schools and Hindu temples. Pakatan parties also failed to convince the Indians that they were with them during their troubled times.

In this respect, the manner in which the Penang state government and the Pakatan leadership handled the Kampung Buah Pala issue remains a thorn in the flesh between Pakatan and the Indian community. In Kampung Buah Pala, the DAP-led Pakatan government in Penang had a golden opportunity to correct a grave injustice done by the BN government to the Indian community but they failed to capitalise on this.

Although everyone knows that it was the Gerakan-BN government that sold the land to outsiders for a paltry sum, the Indian community was looking forward to the new Penang state government and the Pakatan leadership to find a solution to the problem, rathe than merely point fingers. Until today, the state government is unable to correct the impression that it was the new government that gave the green light for the development in Kampung Buah Pala.

Pakatan could have also done so many things to cool down tensions as result of the Kampung Buah Pala issue but they failed miserably.

For example, they could have reached out to Indian NGOs and other Indian political factions to explain to them the real situation in Kampung Buah Pala and the efforts taken by the Penang state government in solving the problems faced by the residents.

However, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s announcement that the residents will not be allowed legal representation during their meetings with the state government and that outsiders will not be allowed to be involved in the problem, gravely disappointed and irked the Indian community.

Even former Hindraf leader and Human Rights Party chief P Uthayakumar was not entertained by the Penang government concerning this matter. The Indian community saw this as arrogance on the part of the state government and realised that the new leaders were no better than the previous ones when dealing with Indian problems.

It is an irony that while Umno-BN are courting former Hindraf leaders like Thanenthran, Pakatan parties which were the real and immediate beneficiaries of Hindraf’s struggle were shunning other Hindraf leaders like Uthayakumar.

The Pakatan leadership should have accommodated people like Uthayakumar and other Indian political factions and NGOs in the Kampung Buah Pala issue, however unreasonable their demands might have been. That might have helped them find a common, acceptable solution or at least would have cooled down matters and allowed outside factions to understand the difficulties behind the Kampung Buah Pala issue.

Naturally, because of the Kampung Buah Pala issue, the Hindraf faction led by Uthayakumar abstained from the Bagan Pinang by-election and that indirectly helped BN.

Finally, there was also no statements from Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim on the Kampung Buah Pala issue either.

The mainstream media and the Tamil media were highlighting the promises Anwar had made some time ago to help the Indians affected by the Kampung Buah Pala issue but there was no response from him. This also disappointed the Indian community.

All is not lost

Pakatan must realise that just as MIC alone cannot deal with all the Indian issues through BN, Pakatan also cannot deal with all the Indian problems in their states simply through Indian leaders and members from PKR, DAP or the PAS supporters club. They need the cooperation, understanding and feedback from other Indian NGOs and Indian political factions.

DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang has rightly pointed out that Pakatan should go back to the drawing board to evaluate its performances and failures. PAS also admitted that they lost Bagan Pinang because they could not get the non-Malay votes.

The continued spat between PAS and DAP in Selangor, Kedah and elsewhere is also weakening Pakatan and contributing to their downfall.

The voters’ confidence in the alternative coalition is diminishing day by day due to Umno-BN’s aggressive overtures and their continued push for change.

However, all is not lost. Pakatan could still correct the situation and prove that as far as Indian votes are concerned, Bagan Pinang is a case in isolation.

To achieve that, the Pakatan leadership must be prepared to come down to the ground to understand the mindset of the Indian community and their feelings towards various issues affecting them.

Pakatan must also be prepared to court and embrace the Indian NGOs and other political factions within the Indian community. They must strategise fresh approaches and mechanisms to increase support from the Indian community and draw up specific agendas for the Indian community in the states ruled by them.

If Pakatan is not pro-active in addressing these issues then the trend set in motion in Bagan Pinang could continue in future by-elections and the next general election.