Malaysians of Indian heritage are currently in a unique position. Not since the pre-Independence days in the 1950s has their influence has been courted by so many. Sitting imperviously on the proverbial political fence, the average Malaysian Indian voter is now getting very comfortable with the kingmaker pose.

But there needs to be a reality check on their real and perceived political strength. Currently, it appears that they still hold much clout because they represent a visible pillar that makes Barisan Nasional (BN) such a formidable political force. The cry that BN represents the interest of all the major races has reverberated since Independence and has effectively drowned the combined cacophony of the opposition. And BN is desperate the keep that arrangement going. However, the results of last year’s general elections indicated that the Malaysian Indians have abandoned the ruling coalition en masse.

This has resulted in a power vacuum and surely enough, since the last general elections, various Indian groupings have emerged to vie for the Malaysian Indian vote. Top of the list is the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), which is the pro-Government political party and wishes to retain its previously unassailable hold on the Malaysian Indian constituency.

But the emergence of the anti-BN Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) in the last two years has provided an effective counter-balance to MIC. HINDRAF’s influence was instrumental in influencing the Malaysian Indians’ voting pattern in the last general elections in March 2008, resulting in a major loss of support for the ruling government.

Realising, this, UMNO, which is the largest party in the ruling coalition, has plotted and prodded to initiate change within MIC. But MIC’s President Dato Seri Samy Vellu who has kept an iron grip on the party since coming to helm in 1979 has been difficult in his dealings with UMNO and has refused to be browbeaten. The recent speech by Dato Seri Najib UMNO’s president and current Malaysian Prime Minister during the opening ceremony of the MIC’s AGM, which was seen by many as a frontal attack on Samy Vellu’s political style backfired and resulting in the president’s men sweeping the party polls. The positions that were up for grabs included that of a deputy president, three vice-presidents and 23 central working committee positions.

It appears that Samy Vellu’s acrimonious and very public verbal jousting with one time ally Dato Seri Mahathir Mohammed, Malaysia’s ex-Prime Minister and much respected UMNO statesman has given further ammunition for UMNO to push for Samy’s ouster. To UMNO, the arithmetic is simple; a Samy Vellu-led MIC has lost the capability and capacity to deliver the votes as it has been able to do consistently since 1957.

In the meantime another political party called Makkal Sakthi (“People’s Power” in the Tamil language) has mushroomed under suspicious circumstances as it clearly had the backing of the BN and enjoyed fast-track approval from the registrar. Makkal Sakhti, which is due to be registered on October 10 is positioned as a party representing the anti-government Malaysian Indians who took to the streets in a massive demonstration in the heart of Malaysia’s capital city in November 2007.

Perhaps UMNO feels that as with the Malays and the Chinese politicians, the Malaysian Indian politicians also need some degree of competition to perform effectively. The BN also has the backing of the Indian Progressive Party (IPF) which remains staunchly pro-BN as well as other parties which have had some influence in the Malaysian Indian support such as the multi-racial GERAKAN and People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and the Malaysian Indian Muslim Congress (Kimma), which claims to represent Malaysian Indian Muslims.

On the side of Opposition, there are various parties wooing the Malaysian Indian votes. This includes two of the three largest political parties in the opposition coalition namely Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Democratic Action Party as well as to a lesser extent Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) and even Parti Islam Semalaysia (PAS), the overtly Islamic party.

The consequence is that the Malaysian Indian votes are much diluted. A mix of unique circumstances allowed the Malaysian Indians to vote almost en bloc in the last general elections. However, the dynamics have changed since then. The refusal of the main HINDRAF leaders to organize themselves on a formal political platform or at least take a non-racial/religious approach has broken the momentum. HINDRAF’s neutrality which has seen it going against both the pro-Government and opposition parties on certain cases has isolated its leaders and magnified its race (and religious)-based ideology.

This has resulted in a situation where the Malaysian Indians could be back to square one, with limited political clout and diffused political base. Now the question is — who is going the break this news to the chap on the fence?