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iain marlow

In the dusty town of Ayodhya, the ruins of a 16th-century mosque lie behind three perimeter fences patrolled by heavily armed guards. Jeeps filled with police rumble down roads, the town centre is dominated by a checkpoint staffed by khaki-clad officers, and all lanes leading to the mosque's perimeter are blocked from vehicle traffic. The security is there for a reason.

In 1992, a highly organized Hindu mob of more than 100,000 people demolished the majestic Babri mosque, built in 1528 on land believed by some Hindus to be the birthplace of Ram, an important deity. They wanted to build a Hindu temple in the mosque's stead – and still do.

At the time, the event sparked widespread violence between India's majority Hindu population and the country's large Muslim population, killing around 2,000 people.

And now, as India's 815 million registered voters head to the polls in the country's five-week national elections, the mosque in Ayodya has cropped up yet again, in the manifesto of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which looks set to seize power in New Delhi and oust the secular Indian National Congress. The BJP – members of whom were implicated in the mosque's destruction – have pledged to do whatever they can to build the Hindu temple. That is one aspect of the BJP's agenda that frightens India's Muslim community, but it is not the only one. And India's sizable Muslim population of more than 170-million – which, on its own, would be the second-most populous Islamic country in the world – may just bring that fear along with them to the polling booth.

"The anger that was there in 1992, it's still there," says Ghufran Siddiqui, 33, a Muslim who grew up nearby. "If you do a prayer on the loudspeakers, there is a lot of tension. How it will burst one day is a big question mark. Everyone's worried."

The fears are particularly acute because the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, was chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 when vicious anti-Muslim riots flared across his state – a tragedy directly related to Ayodhya. Many police officers refused to intervene as more than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed, and human rights groups had to fight the state government to extract compensation and housing for Muslim survivors.

The violence in 2002 was sparked by an incident involving a train car full of Hindus returning from a pilgrimage to Ayodhya, who began arguing with Muslim vendors at a station in a fight that ended with a burning train car and 58 dead.

Although more than 80 per cent of Indians are Hindus, Muslims represent around 15 per cent of the country's 1.2 billion people, or roughly 176-million people. In certain Indian constituencies, Muslims make up a large percentage of voters – 31 per cent in Assam, 26 per cent in West Bengal and 18 per cent in Uttar Pradesh, which has 200 million people and the most seats of any Indian state. Many congregations can also be swayed by powerful local imams, and Indian politicians often try to woo them as a bloc. This is no different than local parties or candidates who draw support from particular Hindu castes.

But even though some individual Muslims are sure to cast votes for the BJP – on hot-button issues such as the economy or corruption – it is clear the BJP has decided that it is more tactical to play to its broad Hindu base than try and win over Muslims who have traditionally voted for the Congress party. Because the BJP's plan to erect the Ram temple over the demolished mosque – which is currently stalled in the Indian court system – is just one aspect of the BJP's manifesto that Muslims fear.

The BJP wants to revoke Article 370 of the Indian constitution that guarantees the semi-autonomous status of the largely Muslim state of Kashmir. This prompted the BJP's local candidate, Arif Majid Pampori, to resign in protest, calling the manifesto "anti-Muslim."

The manifesto also makes clear that the party wants to establish a uniform civil code, thereby doing away with India's existing "personal law" allowances that allow minority communities such as Muslims to make decisions on marriages, divorce and other non-criminal matters. The BJP says this is to ensure gender equality for young girls, but many Muslims view it as an attack on their way of life.

"They will execute policies that go against Muslims," says Zafaryab Jilani, a prominent Muslim lawyer in Lucknow who argued on behalf of Muslims in a court case in which judges ruled the disputed lands should be divided up – a solution no one liked, and everyone appealed.

Like many other Muslims in and around Lucknow, which is a few hours from Ayodhya by car, Mr. Jilani doubts the BJP could unilaterally circumnavigate the courts and build the temple that many of its followers want. But he suggests the BJP would unquestionably try to ensure that Muslims receive no special treatment – not just on the civil code, but with regard to targeted funding for Muslim graveyards (Hindus cremate their dead) and scholarships targeted specifically to lift certain Muslim communities out of poverty. Central government funds for Muslim scholarships, Mr. Jilani said, have not been doled out by the state government of Gujarat under the BJP leadership of Mr. Modi – and he said this would continue if he takes on more power at the centre.

Ghanshyam Shah, a national fellow of the Indian Council of Social Science Research who is based in the Gujarat's biggest city, Ahmedabad, said funding under Mr. Modi for Islamic culture has been almost non-existent in Gujarat, and added that the state's textbooks give little attention to the Islamic Mughal period of the country's history.

"His strength is he is a very determined person," Prof. Shah says of Mr. Modi. "But this very strength, if it's not used properly, can take the country down the path of disaster."

It is unclear how far the BJP can push on these issues – particularly complex legal ones such as Ayodhya – but during the election, they play to the Hindu nationalist party's base of supporters. The BJP has often characterized Congress's pluralistic approach as Mulsim appeasement at the expense of Hindus. Among the poor, disenfranchised voters of Uttar Pradesh, where a communal riot last year that left 60 dead, it is a message that resonates.

"Congress supports the Muslims. Muslims are very evil," says Mukesh Dubey, 28, who graduated from college but has been unable to find a good job. "If the BJP comes into power, they'll look after the Hindus."

While Indian liberals and many Muslims have strong fears about the BJP's agenda, some critics of Mr. Modi suggest the BJP's ideological rhetoric on Hindu-Muslim issues is simply a shallow ploy to win votes – and not a serious attempt to stoke tensions. The BJP has recently attempted to project Mr. Modi as more moderate, a man who will have to rule from the center if and when he takes power. And though some doubt he will be able to properly rein in BJP's pro-Hindu extremists, it is possible that fringe elements within the BJP will be constrained by the compromises common to India's coalition-dominated democracy – where no single party has had a simple parliamentary majority since 1989.

But even though particular parties – such as Uttar Pradesh's Samajwadi Party – rely on Muslim votes, and the BJP barely has any Muslim candidates, it is not at all clear that Muslims will swing a big enough portion of the votes toward BJP rivals, such as Congress, to make a difference at the national level. Some Muslims see a BJP victory as inevitable, and some – tired of the Congress party and corruption scandals – even say they will vote for the BJP.

"Hindu, Muslim is not the issue," says Mohamed Hasan, a Muslim who sat playing cards with his Hindu friends in Varanasi, a holy city in India that is also Mr. Modi's electoral constituency. Shiv Shanker Singh, one of his friends, nods and chimes in. "We're all going to vote for Modi."