Iran-Israeli Tit For Tat, India’s Vote Marathon & Lanka’s Long Election Eve

- colombotelegraph.com

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

The BBC called it “an audible sigh of relief.” That was after Israeli chose to have a measured last word on Friday, April 19, in the mutual deterrence back and forth, and Iran chose to downplay it as insignificant and a defeat for the enemy. The last word was delivered by way of mild strikes targeting Iran’s military installations in two Iranian cities and in south Syria. The recent spat began with Israel’s unprovoked April 1st airstrike on Iran’s consulate building in Damascus, Syria, that killed seven of Iran’s elite Quds Force officers. Within two weeks Iran responded with a spectacle of drone and missile attacks against Israel.

Although it was not a serious punch, it was the first direct attack by Iran on Israel after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Until now Iran has been using proxies to harass Israel – the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas and other groups among the Palestinians. And Israel has been responding in kind. By striking directly at Isarel’s territory Iran has “rewritten the rules” of engagement between the two countries, according to veteran US Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross.

The fear in Washington and other Western capitals was that an Israeli response could escalate the situation and trigger a broader regional conflict if not an all out war. The G-7 countries began exerting diplomatic pressure on Israel to avoid a military response. China pleaded for caution and indirectly asked the US to use its influential presence to de-escalate the situation. No one other than the ultra-nationalists in Israel wanted an escalation.

The US government categorically indicated that it would have no involvement in a military response by Israel. And that was after helping Israel to successfully intercept and neutralize almost all of the 300 drones and missiles that Iran rained on Israel in the wee hours of last Sunday. But earlier, after the Israeli strike in Damascus, Washington had reportedly assured Tehran that it had no prior knowledge of the Israeli airstrike.

In the end, Israel decided to have a measured last word that Iran could safely ignore without the regime losing face before its people. The Israeli government is in no less precarious situation. Suddenly Netanyahu became the moderate voice in his cabinet with ultranationalists insisting on revenge and the general support for an Israeli response among Israeli people. In Israeli political circles, Mr. Netanyahu is known for dodging and avoiding making tough decisions in difficult situations contrary to his rhetorical bravados. But the upshot of Iran’s retaliation has been a godsend political respite for Prime Minister Netanyahu and a shift in attention from the crisis and tragedy in Gaza.

Before Iran’s retaliatory drone spectacle Mr. Netanyahu had been put flat on his backfoot following a second April Fools Day Israeli drone killing besides Damascus. This was in Gaza where seven aid workers belonging to the high profile World Central Kitchen charity were struck and killed in their vehicles. The founder and operator of World Central Kitchen is a Spanish American chef and prominent Washington restauranter, José Andrés, who personally knows the President among other Washington notables. That provoked Washington in public and President Biden in a private phone call with Netanyahu to demand and obtain specific concessions from Israel to allow supplies and expand the space for aid operations in Gaza. Then came Iran’s retaliation.

Lost in the weeklong tension in the Middle East is the US vetoing of the Security Council resolution proposed by Algeria to grant Palestine full-member status at the UN, where it now has a permanent observer status that began in 2012. The incongruity goes back to 1949 when only Israel was given full status and Palestine was excluded. A full-member status could be a necessary step towards the two-state solution that Washington has been touting after the current crisis began in October last year. In vetoing the Algerian resolution, the US argued that a full UN membership status to Palestine should not be given through the UN process, but through “direct negotiations between the parties.” That is transparently illogical and also impractical given Mr. Netanyahu’s flat refusal of the two-state solution.    

Indian Marathon

Across the Arabian sea in India, on Friday, hundreds of millions pf people started their voting marathon to elect their 18th Lok Sabha after independence. The poll ends on 1st June, and results will be announced from 3rd June. Prime Minister Modi and the BJP are widely expected to win leaving observers to bet on the size of their victory. Will they surpass their tally of 303 seats in 2019, or even go further and secure a two-thirds majority, winning more than 370 seats?

Even though he has led the BJP to consecutive majorities in 2014 and 2019 and is poised to deliver a threepeat this year, Modi is conscious of his inability to transform the BJP into a truly national party like the old Congress Party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The two are his historical nemeses and it bothers him deeply that his charisma has no reach beyond the contours of the Hindutva bigots. Nehru vehemently despised bigotry, while Modi passionately celebrates it. Yet much, not all, of contemporary India has taken to Modi and abandoned the heirs of Nehru and the old Congress banyan.

“The Congress is India, and India is the Congress,” was Nehru’s triumphant slogan at the time of independence and for more than a decade thereafter. Now his great grandson Rahul Gandi has cobbled together a patchwork alliance called INDIA that is no more than an abbreviation for a political mouthful: The Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance. Despite the early hopes it kindled, the alliance has not been able to become an electoral counter machine to the BJP juggernaut. In the 2019 elections, the parties that of the INDIA alliance won 91 out of 543 seats, less than a third of the BJP tally. How far would they go now?

The alliance is primarily a conglomerate of regional parties. The national posture is provided by the two Communist Parties, which are now less than state parties, and the Congress which is less than a shadow of its imposing past. In 2019, the Congress and the BJP faced off each other in 202 Lok Sabha seats, and the Congress won only 16 of them.  This time, the Congress is seen to be independently strong in only four states, three of them in in the south – Karnataka, Kerala and Telangana, and Punjab in the north. This leaves much of the electoral heavy lifting to regional parties and their leaders in eight states including Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Delhi and Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Together the 12 states account for 369 seats in the Lok Sabha. If the opposition parties can make inroads in these states, they can at least stop the BJP race to a two-thirds majority even if they are not able to stop it from winning the race.

Further, the BJP lags in six of the 12 states (Telangana, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Kerala) plus Odisha, which carry a combined total of 204 seats. The BJP has not won more than 50 seats in all of the six states added together in the last two elections – winning 29 seats in 2014 and 47 seats in 2019. But Modi’s heart is in showing some victory in Tamil Nadu, where the BJP has never been able to make a dent in the periodical alliances of the two Dravidian parties that have alternated as government and opposition for nearly sixty years. Even winning a single seat in Tamil Nadu would be an achievement for Modi, and that is what pushed Modi to raise the spectre of Katchatheevu during the election campaign. The Sunday Island (March 31) editorial called Modi’s demagogic hype as bottom trawling for Tamil Nadu votes.

The Long Eve

For all its other problems, the election year politics in Sri Lanka is not even a storm in a teacup. Quite a world apart from the aragalaya protests two years ago. There is still a long way to go before the presidential election in September-October. Perhaps too long to stop political silliness from crowding out serious politics. There are now debates over who will debate whom, where and when. There are musings about a common Tamil candidate, the self-promotion of a single Tamil candidate, and even the prospect of a Sri Lankan Hindu candidate. Not even Modi is claiming a Hindu Prime Minister title in India. Modi’s Sri Lankan Tamil followers want to go even further than their master.

It now seems certain that there would be no parliamentary election before the presidential election. It is even more certain that Ranil Wickremesinghe would be a candidate at the election. Twenty years after he last was a presidential candidate. This time as the incumbent interim President. The killing curiosity is about Sajith Premadasa. For all his posturing about debates – with or without his team – there are still speculations whether Mr. Premadasa would be a candidate himself; or if he would be coopted inside the Wickremesinghe ticket as a future Prime Minister, but with more say than the name-board status that his father resented.

Clearly off the starting block, and he has been for a while, is Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Being in the race even before it has not begun has its own problems. One is the extended period of scrutiny that Mr. Dissanayake and his NPP are now facing. The NPP that is the abbreviation for National People Power is now being expanded as No Plan Party. A rigorous scrutiny is necessary for the country to avoid another incompetent administration so soon after getting rid of the last one. It is also a blessing in disguise for the NPP to demonstrate its competence not only to the electorate, but also sincerely internally to itself.

The election issues are also shaping up along with alliance formations among political forces. The economic question remains topmost, but political contenders would and should be forced to come up with specific answers at the more granular levels. What happens after the current IMF timeline comes to an end in June? What is everyone’s position on debt restructuring? What are the implications of the slow re-valuation of the rupee – should it be encouraged to bring prices down; could the rupee be allowed to rise to the point of harming exports; what is special about the threshold exchange rate of SLR 280 to a dollar that the President seems to have indicated?

Then there are the more traditional questions involving constitutional and law and order matters with enormous implications for the participation of the non-Sinhala Buddhist sections of the population. Ranil Wickremesinghe has a history of answers to these questions on paper, but no record of serious action or significant achievement. Anura Kumara Dissanayake, on the other hand, has had no opportunity to create any record of action or achievement, but as an aspiring president he cannot avoid the responsibility to provide answers to some longstanding national questions.

In a recent speech in Jaffna, Mr. Dissanayake is reported to have said that he is not going to bargain for Tamil votes by promising ’13 plus’ or a ‘federal solution.’ His apparent alternative is the assurance of an ‘inclusive Sri Lankan identity.’ That is neither here nor there. There is already some inclusive identity on everyone’s national identity card (even if it is only in language) and passport. Is he suggesting anything more? No one is asking Mr. Dissanayake to bargain or bottom- trawl for Tamil votes or any votes. There is quite a space in between for him to write some specific answers. And there is still time to do it.    

The post Iran-Israeli Tit For Tat, India’s Vote Marathon & Lanka’s Long Election Eve appeared first on Colombo Telegraph.

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