Middle East on Edge, India’s Vote Marathon, and Lanka’s Long Election Eve



An Israeli female trooper inspects an Iranian ballistic missile which the IDF claims was retrieved from the Dead Sea after Iran launched its attack. (Times of Israel Photo)

by Rajan Philips

As Sri Lankans took time off to mark the national New Year last week, Iran launched a spectacle of drone and missile attacks against Israel. This 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. Iran’s attack was more a spectacle than a serious punch and was intended as a retaliatory response to Israel’s April 1 airstrike on Iran’s consulate building in Damascus, Syria, that killed seven of Iran’s elite Quds Force officers. But 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 is that the situation will escalate and get out of control if Israel decides to respond and have the last word in mutual deterrence. The G-7 countries are exerting diplomatic pressure on Israel to avoid a military response, and the US government has indicated that it would have no involvement in such a response. That is after helping Israel to successfully intercept and neutralize almost all of the 300 drones and missiles that Iran rained on Israel last Saturday night.

Even a highly escalated regional conflict, let alone a full blown war between Iran and Israel, would create existential problem for the Biden presidency in the US. President Biden is still the odds on favourite to win the November election against the rampant Trump, but an escalated Middle East conflict would be a repetition of the 1979 history of the Iranian hostage crisis that rocked the Carter presidency and led to the 1980 defeat of Democratic President Jimmy Carter after a single term in office.

Before Iran’s drone spectacle Mr. Netanyahu had been put flat on his backfoot following another April Fools Day Israeli drone killing – of seven aid workers belonging to the high profile World Central Kitchen charity. The founder and operator of this charity is a Spanish American chef and prominent Washington restauranter, José Andrés, who personally knows the President among other Washington notables. Added to this was the Israeli strike in Damascus which created fears in Washington of Iran’s retaliation and the regional escalation of the Gaza conflict. Washington reportedly assured Tehran that it had no prior knowledge of the Israeli airstrike.

The upshot of Iran’s retaliation is the shift in attention from the crisis and tragedy in Gaza and a godsend political respite for Prime Minister Netanyahu. In Israeli political circles, Mr. Netanyahu is known for dodging and avoiding making tough decisions in difficult situations contrary to his rhetorical bravados. That quality might be of some deterrent value in the current situation marked by the extremist insistence on revenge and the general support for an Israeli response among Israeli people. Netanyahu is too deep in domestic trouble to do anything to hurt Bilden’s election chances in the US, but he certainly will not be looking to do anything to help Biden either. In fact, he would prefer the return of Trump to the White House to a second Biden term.

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 June 1, and results will be announced from June 3. There will be state assembly elections in four states (Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Andra Pradesh and Odisha) concurrently with the national election. Three other states (Maharashtra and Jharkhand) will have their assembly elections later in 2024. Jammu and Kashmir will have Lok Sabha elections but no state elections. The state has been under President’s rule since 2019 with no state election after 2014. The status quo might continue indefinitely in a Modi third term.

Prime Minister Modi and the BJP are widely expected to win and the observer bet is 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 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 Gandhi 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 in 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 taking over 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 that title.

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 co-opted 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 internally sincerely 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 achievement. Anura Kumara Dissanayake, on the other hand, has had no opportunity to create any record of action, but 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 was 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 identity on everyone’s national identity card 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.


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