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One of the most remarkable ways in which India has engaged with the Israel-Palestine conflict is through the media. This phenomenon began on social media, as large numbers of Hindutva supporters posted messages in support of Israel. “It is among the stupidest byproducts of globalisation that every time Netanyahu tweets, most Hebrew-language comments call for his resignation and the most supportive comments are in Hindi,” remarked an academic from Yale University.
Later, this messaging became more formalised, with a significant number of Hindi and English news channels sending reporters to Israel to cover the conflict. As some users on social media remarked bitterly, Indian mainstream television news was covering the conflict in West Asia more intensely than it was reporting on the violence in the Indian state of Manipur. The past week has seen wall-to-wall coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict by national television channels thought to closely support the Modi government and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
As I have noted in an earlier India Fix, large sections of the Indian television media are beholden to the Union government and largely push programming that supports it. In this case, the conflict could hardly have come at a better time for the BJP. Just before this, the Opposition had – maybe for the first time in a decade – actually set the agenda with the release of caste census data in Bihar. In the electorally critical Hindi belt, the BJP’s Hindutva platform now had an ideological and electoral challenger. But for more than a week now, the caste census has been off the news, displaced by a conflict taking place 5,000 km away.
Even better for the BJP, the Israel-Palestine conflict allows the party to advance its Hindutva agenda and its national security plank. Just a day after the attacks by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, for example, the BJP tweeted a video about Islamist terror attacks during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance.
Since then, the BJP has pushed hard on this plank. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP government arrested a Muslim cleric on Saturday for a social media post supporting Palestine. Before this, students from the Aligarh Muslim University were booked for marching in support of Palestine. The Uttar Pradesh chief minister has, in fact, directed police to prosecute any resident of the state who expresses support for Palestine, reported the Deccan Herald.
The strong impact of the BJP’s messaging on the conflict can best be seen in the confusion in the Congress ranks. On October 10, the Congress Working Committee released a statement on the conflict. “The CWC expresses its dismay and anguish on the war that has broken out in the Middle East where over a thousand people have been killed in the last two days,” it read. “The CWC reiterates its long-standing support for the rights of the Palestinian people to land, self-government and to live with dignity and respect.”
However, at the time, the Indian Express reported that there was unease that the resolution did not mention the attacks by Hamas. Congress party chief Mallikarjun Kharge reportedly wanted to avoid mentioning the conflict altogether, sticking to the caste census, which just till a few days back, had given the party a strong sense of momentum. Expectedly, the resolution was quickly picked up by the BJP, which attacked the Congress for failing to “deplore a terror attack”.
Modi’s BJP represents a sharp change from traditional views on Palestine in India. Since the conflict started in the 1930s, the Congress has largely supported Palestinian claims. This was driven partly by the Congress’s DNA of the freedom movement: the expulsion of Palestinains from their homeland – at the time ruled by the British Empire – and the settlement mostly of European Jews was seen through the lens of colonisation.
To this was added strong Indian Muslim sentiment around the issue, given that Palestinians are mostly Muslim and Palestine contains cities such as Jerusalem, which are religiously significant in Islam.
Indian Muslim lens
The second factor meant that even when Rajiv Gandhi when he was prime minister effected a sharp foreign policy change and established significant ties with Israel in the 1980s, this was done by stealth and without fanfare – a sharp contrast from Modi, where the public rhetoric on Israel has actually outstripped New Delhi’s official support for Palestinian aspirations. (India’s position on establishing a Palestinian state remains unchanged and Modi was actually the first Indian prime minister to make an official visit to Palestine.)
While Rajiv Gandhi did not want to upset prominent sections of the Muslim leadership, the BJP of course benefits from Muslim anger on the issue, given it enthuses Hindutva ideologues. Moreover, since the BJP hardly gets any Muslim votes anyway, it has little to lose. This BJP rhetoric is helped by the fact that Israel has slowly but surely gained power on the international stage. Even Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia are looking to normalise relations with the Jewish state.
While ideological battles are important and play a critical role in charging up support bases, it is unclear what impact the Israel-Palestine conflict will have on actual voting numbers in India. It is unlikely that any Hindu voter who is fired up by the BJP’s strong messaging on Israel does not already support the Hindutva party. On the other hand, while the issue might play out loudly on social media, it is rather unlikely that most Indian Muslims will cast their votes on the basis of a far-off conflict rather than direct issues of bread and butter or, in BJP-ruled states, straight-up personal safety.
This might explain the Congress’ vacillation on the matter once it was attacked for the resolution of its working committee, as well as the fact that parties with significant Muslim voter bases, such as the Samajwadi and the Trinamool Congress, have largely avoided wading into the debate.