The first of three major elections in Asia concluded on April 9 in Israel, two days before India votes in the first of seven phases in its Lok Sabha polls. The Indonesian elections follow around a week later. The Israeli election bears important similarities to that of India in the highly divisive campaigning by Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Benyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud managed to pip principal rival Blue and White party, led by former Israeli Defence Forces chief Benny Gantz. Likud’s 26.27 per cent of the vote, in a system of proportional representation, secured it 35 seats in the 120-member Knesset (Parliament). But catapulting Mr Netanyahu to a fifth term as Prime Minister are 32 seats won by his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies. The framing of electoral issues bears an uncanny similarity to the BJP’s strategy in India, as the Israeli election played out on the theme of “Democracy” versus “Security”.
Gil Troy in the Jerusalem Post wrote that “as to the accusation that a culture of excusing corruption, dividing society, demonising opponents and embracing bigots undermines democracy, Netanyahu and his supporters shouted, ‘Shut up, you’re leftists’”. This is eerily like the BJP dubbing any criticism of their policies by India’s Opposition as merely a fulmination of the “Tukde-Tukde Gang”. The Blue and White party campaigned on a “we-hate-Bibi” platform, without any big ticket ideas on alternative policy approaches to Israeli security and economic dilemmas. The BJP is likewise attempting to make the election all about Mr Modi and divert attention from the BJP’s governance deficit and economic under-performance.
Is the re-election of Prime Minister Modi now a foregone conclusion? Pre-election polls show a drop in the NDA’s numbers but still leaving the Congress-led rivals way behind. There is also the similarity of external help provided cannily to favoured politicians in Israel and India. US President Donald Trump upturned America’s West Asia policy and peace initiatives dating back to 1991 by endorsing Israeli occupation of the critical Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1973. Mr Trump poured more gravy on Mr Netanyahu’s plate by designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the muscle and protector of the Islamic regime in Tehran, as terrorists. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin pitched in by arranging the return of the remains of an Israeli tank commander killed in Israel’s Lebanon war.
In the case of India, the US-Saudi-Emirati alliance has been doling out favours at crucial moments to allow Mr Modi to build his persona as a crusader against terrorism and corruption and as counterfoil to Pakistan. The extradition of Christian Michel from the UAE on the last day of campaigning in the Rajasthan election was then followed by the deportation of Deepak Talwar and others as the Lok Sabha polls neared, to enable finger-pointing against the UPA over civil aviation scandals and the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal. Finally, the quick repatriation of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was arranged from Pakistan to boost Mr Modi’s image as a man of resolve. Unlike Mr Netanyahu, who faces corruption charges, Mr Modi as an incorruptible and strong leader is integral to his image.
The Modi-Netanyahu relationship is undergirded by an unsaid ideological affinity between Hindutva and Zionism. The first official visit abroad by home minister Lal Krishna Advani, during the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, included Israel. Mr Modi as chief minister had already been to Israel. Mr Netanyahu, welcoming Mr Modi in Israel in 2017, noted that Israel had been waiting for an Indian Prime Minister for 70 years. Savarkar had written in the 1920s: “If the Zionists’ dreams are ever realised - if Palestine becomes a Jewish state - it will gladden us almost as much as our Jewish friends.” The concept of an “ethnic democracy” has been described by Israeli thinkers as a democratic state that is defined by and subservient to a single ethnic nation. The amendments to the Indian nationality law, now a part of the BJP’s election manifesto, to confer citizenship only on non-Muslim minorities in the Saarc neighbourhood, advances the same idea. A secular nation’s asylum policy has to be religion neutral. Take the
Ahmaddiyas of Pakistan, who are persecuted there even more than Hindus and whose holiest place Qadianis is in our Punjab. Why do they not qualify for asylum?
India is not Israel, despite the affinities between those ruling India today and Israel. First, India does not have proportional representation, which denies a polarising party a higher seat-share in new electoral areas like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu or Kerala. Second, the sheer diversity of India makes it difficult to spread a national security message based on arousing fears uniformly across India. Third, language barriers provide filters through which it is more difficult to spread bigotry, mainly manufactured in the Hindi-speaking areas.
Fourth, the principal Opposition party, the Congress, has largely avoided either being baited on security issues or make the election about the Prime Minister. Their election manifesto has kept focus on their own pro-poor and pro-farmer policies, with some avoidable takes on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Finally, institutional collapse is still not complete in India.
Coming to institutions, the Election Commission has regrettably retreated in the face of shameless partisanship by government agencies conducting raids only on the members of Opposition parties. But the Supreme Court has just restored balance by rejecting the government’s plea that documents in the public space about the Rafale deal were inadmissible having been wrongfully obtained.
It has thus opened up review of its earlier ruling based on incomplete information, given by the government in sealed covers on the pretext of public interest demanding secrecy. This has blown the lid off the government’s slogan that its five years are unblemished by any charge of corruption or malfeasance. The Supreme Court’s earlier ruling was being used by the government as a “clean chit”.
The Modi government may yet regret having organised polling in major states in seven phases to allow for saturation campaigning by their principal campaigner - the Prime Minister. Word of mouth anecdotal accounts from where polling occurs on April 11 can build into a storm of public opinion that mushrooms. The Supreme Court’s reopening of the Rafale deal undercuts a part of the BJP’s narrative and provides the Opposition a vital riposte to the BJP’s Modi-the-incorruptible slogan.
Misuse of government agencies, the chicanery over bypassing regulations to start NaMo TV, the divisive campaigning by the likes of Yogi Adityanath and so on play differently in a civilisational and subcontinent-sized India than in tiny Israel. A tiny nation in constant state of war is hardly a model for a great power like India. The Lok Sabha results will tell if the people of India have seen through the BJP’s “Game of Thrones”....