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Delhi caught in a Gaza fix
- Sushma wants debate ‘de-listed’

New Delhi, July 16: External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has written to Rajya Sabha chairman Hamid Ansari requesting that a short discussion on the Gaza attacks by Israel be “de-listed” from the House’s agenda.

The proposal for the discussion, which was scheduled for Wednesday but did not take place, and the “de-list” request have brought to the fore several pulls and pressures under which the Narendra Modi government is working.

One, Sushma’s request has reflected the Modi government’s reluctance to be seen as taking sides against Israel in West Asia.

Two, suspicions have been voiced whether someone played “mischief” and got the topic included for a short-duration discussion that does not entail voting but can embarrass the government. West Asia has always been a sensitive subject in the country and many parties strive to echo perceived local sentiments in favour of Palestine.

Three, whether too much is being made about conspiracy theories and an inexperienced minister had unwittingly agreed to include the topic on the agenda.

Sushma said such a debate, put off today amid Opposition protests after she claimed being “unaware” of the “revised” agenda, should not be allowed for a number of reasons.

The principal factor, she said, is the “adverse” implications a polarising discourse in Parliament could have on relations with Israel that Prime Minister Modi and the BJP are committed to consolidating and expanding further.

In her missive to Ansari, Sushma is learnt to have cited three specific points against the Gaza debate: the “impact” it could have on the fate of the 39 Indians being held hostage in Iraq, the “frontline” role of the outlawed Hamas in retaliatory assaults against Israel, and the fact that India had diplomatic relations with Israel and Palestine and could not be seen to “take sides”.

A government source said, referring to the topic: “It is a mistake or mischief.”

The source insinuated that the “mischief” might have been instigated by a “politically committed” section of the Rajya Sabha secretariat to “disconcert” the new government.

A secretariat source offered another theory. “These are teething problems being experienced by a party that was in the Opposition for a decade. Maybe, the BJP finds the topic inconvenient, maybe there is a communication gap between its ministers.”

Although the debate was not held, a formal reply to Sushma’s request for erasing the item from the agenda is still being drafted by the Rajya Sabha secretariat, a source said.

It is learnt that the chairman’s office is expected to cite rules which state that once an item is listed, it becomes the “property of the House” and, as a consequence, dropping or amending the matter is possible only with the concurrence of the members.

Although government sources claimed the short-duration discussion crept in “mysteriously” on the agenda sheet, junior parliamentary affairs minister Prakash Javadekar seemed to know about it last evening.

According to the Rajya Sabha records of Tuesday, there was a debate between 5pm and 6pm on how the business for the following day should be organised.

Javadekar, according to the records, said he had allotted 10 hours for a discussion on the railway budget. He added that since the Congress wanted a short-duration discussion on the attacks on Palestinians in Gaza that “can go on for three hours”, the House should get down to the rail budget right away to save time.

Government and Opposition sources said that while a demand for the discussion did not arise at yesterday’s meeting of the Rajya Sabha’s business advisory committee — which decides what matters are to be taken up —members had “informally” sought one. “Some Opposition MPs said Javadekar had informally agreed to one but we are yet to verify their account,” a source said.

Government sources suggested that Modi — away in Brazil — might have communicated his “disapproval” of the discussion to senior ministers, including Sushma. As Gujarat chief minister, Modi was Israel-friendly and had used its expertise to revamp agriculture and irrigation in the arid state.

“In normal times, a free-wheeling discussion would be fine. But when Indians have been held captive and provocative statements are made in the House, it could jeopardise their lives. Also, is it possible to exclude the Hamas’ contribution to the crisis? It is a terrorist outfit,” a source stressed.

Sources said that at the core of the BJP’s reluctance was its “world-view” that global conflicts and internal hostilities in another country should not be allowed to influence India’s foreign policy.

A government source suggested that “the violence is politically exploited by some parties to play on local sentiments.”

Samajwadi Party Rajya Sabha leader Ramgopal Yadav rejected such suggestions. “The issue is a humanitarian one because the victims are largely unarmed women and children. We cannot remain mute and blind to this catastrophe,” Yadav said.