"The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is not able to exploit religious identity as much as in the past," Asghar Ali Engineer, a Muslim scholar and champion of interreligious cooperation who heads the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, told Reuters Friday, April 24.
Being aware that playing the religion card in this year's election could backfire, the BJP has toned down its religious pitch.
"The BJP leadership has to exercise caution – if they're seen as extremists, they will not be voted to power," Engineer said.
Gandhi has threatened to cut off the hands of anyone harming Hindus and comparing a Muslim rival to Osama bin Laden.
Seeking to lure moderate middle class voters who are unmoved by communal politics, the BJP turned to the more appealing local issues.
"Local problems have assumed a greater importance," Engineer said.
Indians are voting in a month-long, five-stage elections, with its once red-hot economy feeling the strain of the global downturn.
Hindus make up 80 percent of India's 1.1 billion population, followed by Muslims at 13 percent, Christians at 2.3 percent, Sikhs at 1.8 percent and Buddhists at 0.8 percent.
Muslim leader Imam Mohammad Ismael said interfaith relations at the grass roots level were better than campaign rhetoric suggested.
"The politicians make problems before every election," Ismael said at his Nashik mosque.
"After the elections, it's calm again."
Coming only months after the Mumbai terror attacks that killed 166 people, the election campaigns could have been overshadowed by communal demagoguery.
But with calm prevailing, faith now competes for voters' attention with caste, class and local loyalties.
"There was no 'Mumbai effect' here," said Pradnyasagar, chairman of a Buddhist temple in Nashik, a major Hindu pilgrimage centre northeast of Mumbai.
The shifting loyalties are also playing a significant role in sidelining the religion card.
The Hindu vote is now split among two national and several regional parties while Muslims are no longer the "vote bank" they once were for the governing Congress Party.
"The Muslim vote is no more a monolithic object to be had by one party," said political scientist S.A.M. Pasha at Jamia Milia Islamia university.
"Muslims now vote for whichever party they think will safeguard their interest in that particular region."
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