Saturday, July 15, 2006

Congress Party's West Asia concerns

At the Congress Party briefing on July 14, a press relase was issued signed by Mr Janardhan Dwivedi, chairman of the party's media committee, about the escalating violence in West Asia, condemning Israel's use of disproportionate force by attacking Lebanon and Gaza. It was read out by Mr Abhishek Manu Singhvi, vice-chairman of the committee.

This was followed by Mr Singhvi's unequivocal condemnation of the terror strikes in Mumbai on July 11, and how this was connected to terror bases across the border. The media felt that the party was taking a tougher stand than the government in potnting a finger at Pakistan. Of course this was a good tactic. The Congress perhaps wanted to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at bay because the right-wing Hindutva party leaves no chance in attacking the government for being soft on terrorism. Of course, Mr Singhvi parried all questions on the matter.

There was a clear reason as to why Congress chose to speak out on the West Asian crisis, though the media covering the Congress briefing was not interested in it. It is not that Congress has no views on internatiional developments. It is part of Congress history, from the days of the freedom struggle, that the party took a keen interest in international affairs, thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Jayaprakash Narayan and his fellow socialists. But the July 13 statement on West Asia was aimed at the Muslim constituency in India.

Congress has always performed this balancing act. Unable to take a soft stance on the Islamic terror groups which were clearly behind the Mumbai blasts, the party chose to focus on something that would allay Muslims apprehensions that the Congress too is hostile to Muslims. It is of course a mistaken assumption of educated Muslims that if you attack Muslim extremists you are also indirectly attacking Muslims. Congress is very much aware of this. Educated Muslims also believe that the Palestine issue is a Muslim issue, which it is not. But Congress always chose to play the Palestine card as a way of connecting with the Muslims.

There was, however, a hitch there, and the Congress statement dealt with it with a bit of finesse. Towards the end of the statement, it also condemned the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers as well. And the statement reiterated that Congress believes in the existence of two states -- Palestine and Israel.

India had opened its diplomatic mission in Israel in 1994 after the Oslo Accords. But many Muslims and left-leaning liberals feel that India has betrayed the cause of Palestinians by strengthening diplomatic links with Israel. The official Indian view is that in the wake of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians themselves had recognised Isreal, and it made no sense to keep away from Israel.

The motive for the Congress statement on West Asia was both interesting and amusing. The party was up to its old tricks once again. But it has managed to express itself on the issue in conformity with the official Indian view. It is the Congress sleight-of-hand at work.

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