Israel & the US, Modi’s heatwave, and Ranil as Common Government Candidate



India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe

by Rajan Philips

To continue from where I left last week, the Middle East standoff between Iran and Israel has ended without further escalation. An “audible sigh of relief,” as BBC headlined it, swept through the region, and more so perhaps in Washington. Israel did have the last word by striking measuredly at Iran’s military installations in two Iranian cities and in south Syria. Iran ignored the strikes as inconsequential and “a defeat for the enemy.”

Lost in the attention to regional tension was the US vetoing of the UN Security Council resolution proposed by Algeria to grant Palestine full-member status at the UN, moving up from the permanent observer status it has had since 2012. The US diplomatic excuse was that a full membership status to Palestine should not be given through the UN process, but through “direct negotiations between the parties.” This reasoning is transparently illogical and also impractical given Mr. Netanyahu’s flat refusal of the two-state solution.

At the same time, the Biden Administration is trying to restrict Israeli military operations in Gaza and increase flow of aid and assistance to beleaguered Gazans now on the verge of famine. In addition, the Administration is also imposing sanctions against fundraisers for expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and against Israeli military and police units for human violations of Palestinians in the settler areas. But that is not enough to stop Israeli forces from going ahead with ground assault in Rafah after two days of aerial pounding.

Washington appears to be taking a two-pronged approach to the crisis: provide diplomatic and political cover for Israel in international fora, and pushing for restraint on the military operations of the Netanyahu government. Perhaps a necessary approach not only to be effective in the Middle East but also to weather the political storms in the US. The latter is becoming the bigger political worry for Biden. America’s great universities are divided down the middle over the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Republicans in the Congress are fomenting the fires in the name of fighting alleged antisemitism on campuses, even though a number of them are notoriously known for antisemitism in their politics.

On Wednesday, Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson travelled to New York to address a group of Jewish students on the steps of Columbia University library amidst heckling by pro-Palestinian protesters that included Muslims, Jews and other Americans. His mission: to call for the resignation of Columbia University President Minouche Shafik, an impeccably qualified Egyptian American woman. Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Somali American from Minnesota, joined the protesters at Columbia University, where her daughter is among the arrested demonstrators. In an official event in Syracuse protesters greeted President Biden with placards calling him “Genocide Joe”.

And on Thursday, the political and legal chaos surrounding Donald Trump reached a crescendo with simultaneous court proceedings in New York and at the Supreme Court in Washington. The apex court heard oral arguments on whether Trump is entitled to absolute presidential immunity, and peppered the lawyers for Trump and the government with penetrating questions. Judges in all lower courts have all decreed the obvious that there is no such immunity. The Supreme Court is expected to reject the claim of absolute immunity but its conservative majority could send the matter back to the lower courts to determine the facts in the case to which immunity would or would not apply. That would delay the trial and that is all that Trump is looking for now – in the hope that all his legal troubles could be ‘disappeared’ by winning the November election and allowing himself to a sweeping self-pardon dispensation.

Modi, Muslims and Maldives

The Indian election for the 18th Lok Sabha is now into its second week and second phase. Phase 1 voting was completed on Friday, April 19 in 102 Lok Sabha seats which included all 39 seats in Tamil Nadu. Phase 2 voting was on Friday this week covering 88 constituencies in 13 states. All of Kerala’s 20 seats are in Phase 2, which also includes voting for a portion of the seats in larger states like Bihar, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Severe heatwave conditions are impacting voter turnouts in a number of states. But the biggest political heatwave was caused by Prime Minister Modi in an election campaign speech in Rajasthan.

Two days into the elections last Sunday, the Prime Minister threw away his usual dog whistle targeting Muslims and blew full into his foghorn of demagoguery – characterizing the commitment in the Congress Party manifesto to address wealth and income inequalities in society as a scheme to redistribute among Muslims the property and wealth of others. He even accused that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had already started the scheme in 2006 and made Muslims the first claimants to the country’s resources. Then the punch line, as quoted in The Hindu: “That means the property will be distributed among those who have a large number of children… and among the intruders. Is it acceptable to you?”

Anyone other than Modi and his saffron followers would see the Congress manifesto as a response to increasing inequality during the last 10 years in spite of India’s overall economic growth. In 2006, the cerebral Manmohan Singh was addressing the structural problem of inequality and the purpose of public policy to uplift the impoverished – the subaltern castes, women and minorities including Muslims. But facts do not matter to Modi when it comes to Muslim bashing and he will do that not only during elections but any time between them as well. The hatred for Muslims might be part of Mr. Modi’s political DNA given his deep roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the onetime collaborator with colonial rule and the later progenitor of all right wing, anti-Muslim, and anti-Congress political formations in India.

The RSS will mark its birth centenary on September 27, 2025. Fittingly, the Sangh’s most accomplished son will be there as Prime Minister to preside over the occasion. Just as he was there to preside at the inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. But how fitting is it for India, the world’s largest democracy on course to become its third largest economy, to have a Prime Minister spewing hatred of Muslims when India is also the country with the worlds third largest Muslim population? Though unconnected, it was still fitting in a different way that days after Modi’s Muslim-hate speech in Rajasthan, the voters in Maldives voted resoundingly for the People’s National Congress (PNC) party of President Mohammad Muizzu who is known to be keen on steering Maldives away from India and closer to China. The PNC won 70 of 93 members in the national parliament, while the former ruling party, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), dubbed the ‘pro-India’ party, won just 12 seats.

Modi is not the most favourite Indian person in Maldives especially after his January visit to the beaches of the Indian islands of Lakshadweep, the oceanic neighbour of Maldives. His social media posts promoting Lakshadweep tourism were seen by Maldivians as crass and insensitive to the importance of tourism for the Maldivian economy. Although Modi’s hate speech was not a factor in the Maldivian election, it did not escape from being duly noted by Maldives politicians.

Politically, Modi balances his anti-Muslim diatribes with his Hindutva embrace of the multiple linguistic states and regions of India. To wit, his bottom-trawling efforts for votes in Tamil Nadu by resurrecting the controversy over Katchatheevu. In Kerala, however, where both Muslims and Christians are historically strong communities, the BJP is trying to set up the Christians against the Muslims. But the BJP is still the guest actor in Kerala where the battle is between the two front alliances led by the Congress and the Communist Party (CPM), even though outside Kerala the Congress and the CPM are part of the INDIA alliance. Rahul Gandhi himself is contesting from a seat in Kerala, Wayanad, after leaving Amethi, the family borough in Uttar Pradesh, under BJP pressure.

Ranil and Sunak

Modi’s brief resurrection of the Katchatheevu matter was all about embarrassing the DMK in Tamil Nadu and not at all about creating a row with Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is now well wrapped up in Indian tentacles, and so it matters little on which side of the maritime boundary that Katchatheevu is located. The latest of them is the Ramayana Trail, the tracking of which was recently sponsored by the Indian High Commission in Colombo. The Sri Lankan search for Ravana’s helicopter may have ended with the exit of Gota, but looking for Ravana’s helicopter along the Ramayana trail could be a real booster to local tourism that apparently now permits the use of Indian Rupee as a designated tourist currency.

India is not the only one interested foreign party in Sri Lanka. The election season is apparently drawing special visitors from China, Japan, the US and the UK. The British election season is also likely to start soon as Prime Minister Rushi Sunak has indicated that the next election (due before January 28, 2025) will be held in 2024. It could come after Sri Lanka’s presidential election in September-October. There are interesting parallels between the situations of Ranil Wickremesinghe in Sri Lanka and Rush Sunak in Great Britain.

Both came into office as caretakers replacing predecessors who were forced to leave office. Both are viewed as good economic managers, although politically Mr. Wickremesinghe is a little too long in the tooth while Mr. Sunak is still a green Tory. Mr. Sunak’s Conservative Party has a good majority in parliament, but he has control over the party – whether in parliament or in the country. A committed Brexiteer, Mr. Sunak has had to bring in as his Foreign Minister, former Prime Minister David Cameron who quit over Brexit. Mr. Cameron definitely brings gravitas to foreign policy but has no national purchase. In short, unless there is a Labour earthquake, Mr. Sunak’s Prime Minister days are numbered.

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s stars and fortunes are different and might be even rising. He has no party in parliament but is in total control of parliament. He has no party to take to the hustings but that gives him the freedom to shop around for an alliance and promote himself as the common government candidate. A new political animal. The UNP-SLPP alliance is all but formalized for the presidential election. But they will keep their rallies separate for May Day. The rallies will be watched for their crowd size as a measure of political support and organizational resources. The election process itself would pick up pace after May Day next week.