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11 February 2017 Editorial


11 FEBRUARY 2017

As unpredictable as it gets

UPDATED: FEBRUARY 11, 2017 02:41 IST

India’s most populous State finally goes to the polls today, beginning a seven-phase process that starts from the western fringe of Uttar Pradesh. In this first phase, 73 Assembly constituencies in 15 districts of western Uttar Pradesh will elect their legislators in what is clearly the most diversely contested region of the State, the only one in which all four parties/fronts, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Samajwadi Party-Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, fancy their chances. That they all see themselves to be firmly in the hunt indicates the change in western U.P. since the 2014 general election when the BJP registered its biggest margins of leads in Assembly segments. Then, riots in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts in 2013 had resulted in communal polarisation in the BJP’s favour, supplementing the Narendra Modi wave in the State: the BJP alliance netted 73 of the total 80 Lok Sabha seats. But two years is a long time in politics, and issues such as the demonetisation, the performance of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, and BSP leader Mayawati’s reliance on a new samikaran (caste-religion arithmetic) have all changed the nature of the campaign.

This time, reports suggest that many in the landed peasantry among Jats are looking again at the RLD, which till not long ago had been staring at a political decline, as a viable choice. Despite a relatively favourable monsoon and a better agrarian harvest, farmers are now less well-disposed towards the BJP following the demonetisation. The BSP has struck a chord with its traditional support base among Dalits and has fielded a large number of Muslim candidates to consolidate support among the minorities. The SP-Congress alliance seeks to ride a wave of positive support for Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav after his combat with party elders. The BJP has its task cut out to retain its support here, with the effects of the demonetisation hurting traders too. But Mr. Modi’s appeal is still strong, especially among the younger voters. The party has tried to use dog-whistle politics — talking of an “anti-Romeo campaign”, for example, as a softer version of its earlier “love jihad” mobilisation — as a polarising tactic, but it is not clear if that will pay off. A more sound strategy has been its reliance on the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes to take on the identity politics of the BSP and the SP. All said, the political landscape in western U.P. remains dynamic, making predictions risky. However, as in the past, the very specific issues of western U.P. may well influence the rest of the State.


Israel’s continuing land grab

The passage of legislation by Israel that would legalise nearly 4,000 Jewish settler homes on private Palestinian lands in the West Bank flies in the face of international law and norms. That the vote comes weeks after the UN Security Council demanded that Israel stop all settlement activity in the Occupied Territories, and an international conference attended by more than 70 countries urged both sides in the conflict to resume talks, shows Israel’s disregard for international opinion and institutions. The legislation allows the Israeli government to expropriate private Palestinian land if the land-owners are unknown. If known, they will be compensated in cash or kind. However, the legislation, which for the first time since the annexation of East Jerusalem seeks to extend Israeli law to the West Bank, can be overturned by the judiciary. Israel’s Attorney-General has said he wouldn’t defend the bill in the high court as it is “unconstitutional and violates international law”. However, this is unlikely to stop the ideology-driven settler movement and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from taking more Palestinian land. Since Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem five decades ago, about 140 settlements have been built in Palestinian territories that house more than 600,000 Jews. Despite frequent international criticism, successive governments have thrown their weight behind the settlement lobby. Mr. Netanyahu, who is dependent on the right-wing coalition parties for his government’s survival, has played along. Last month, his government approved plans for 2,500 new settler homes in the West Bank.


Israel still says it is committed to the two-state solution. But how will the two-state solution stay relevant if it continues to grab Palestinian land where an independent Palestinian state is supposed to come up? The Netanyahu government has shown no particular interest in resuming negotiations, while its right-wing allies are boasting of expanding Israeli sovereignty to “Judea and Samaria”, the biblical names for the West Bank. And now Israeli authorities feel emboldened by the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President. He has promised to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a disputed city, slammed the Obama administration for not using its veto powers in the UNSC over the settlement resolution in December 2016, and even praised the controversial security wall Israel has built through Palestinian lands. Mr. Netanyahu, facing pressure from coalition partners, may be hoping to continue the status quo of occupation, provided Mr. Trump offers the protection to Tel Aviv that he promised during the campaign. That would make peace yet more distant in West Asia.




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