Najib signs surprise deal with Indian rights group

He promises to uplift community in exchange for Hindraf's support at polls

Hindraf leader P. Waythamoorthy (left) and Umno secretary-general Tengku Adnan Mansor sealing the alliance with BN as PM Najib looks on. -- ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

TWO days before Nomination Day in what is shaping up to be Malaysia's hottest elections, Prime Minister Najib Razak signed a surprise pact with Indian rights group Hindraf, promising help for the Indian community in exchange for their support at the polls.

Datuk Seri Najib yesterday signed a five-year plan to uplift the Indian community through job and education opportunities, and address the issue of stateless Indians in the country.

In return, the movement - which was influential in swinging Indian votes to the opposition in 2008 - said it would tell the Indian community to vote for Mr Najib's Barisan Nasional (BN) in the election.

"Today marks a new relationship between Barisan Nasional and Hindraf," Mr Najib said in a packed hall of Hindraf supporters. "Hindraf's strategic decision to partner with Barisan Nasional speaks volumes of confidence in my leadership."

Indians comprise only about 7 per cent of the country's 28 million population but the voters are scattered in 63 parliamentary seats across peninsular Malaysia and can swing up to 10 seats.

It is unclear how much influence Hindraf still has in the Indian community.

In 2007, it mobilised thousands of Indian supporters to rally in the street, causing the majority of Indian votes to swing to the opposition in the 2008 election.

It was outlawed and subsequently lost influence amid infighting.

Even as Hindraf leader P. Waythamoorthy sealed an alliance with the BN, local media reported that his older brother P. Uthayakumar, who co-founded the movement in 2006, had accused him of "hijacking" the group and said Hindraf will not support the BN.

Hindraf had approached both the BN and opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) to endorse its demands but talks with the PR fell through.

Mr Waythamoorthy said BN, on the other hand, was willing to fulfil its demands.

Earlier, Mr Najib also launched a project in Putrajaya to build houses, each costing less than RM300,000 (S$120,000), for civil servants.

"I have never forgotten the deeds of civil servants," he said. "If you love me, help me soon."

Mr Khoo Kay Peng, a political analyst who runs a consultancy firm, said the two blocs of voters - the Indian community and civil servants - will be Mr Najib's bedrock of support in the elections.

There are about 1.3 million civil servants in the country.

Dr Sivamurugan Pandian, a political analyst at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, said Mr Najib's move to engage with Hindraf will hurt the Pakatan Rakyat.

"BN has broken a psychological barrier among the Hindraf members and supporters that it has only the PR to fall back on," he told The Straits Times.

"It will help galvanise some votes back to the BN."