India’s “Overthrow” moment

Ben Sales

For a parallel to the party change that just took place in India’a national elections, observers of the world’s largest democracy could look to one of the world’s smallest — Israel. 

In India, results from the vote show that the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its prime-ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, won an absolute majority in the country’s parliament. The result is a defeat for the Indian National Congress, a center-left party that has governed for much of modern India’s history.

The election result recalls a similar moment in Israel’s legislative history — the 1977 election known here as the Mahapach, or overthrow. In that election, which took place 37 years ago, Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud Party displaced the center-left Labor, which had governed Israel for all of its 29 years following independence in 1948.

Labor won election after election by pursuing secular, social-democratic policies. But by 1977, it had been hit by a series of corruption scandals — the most recent being Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s resignation as party head after his wife was found illegally holding a foreign bank account in the U.S. Voters also blamed the party for being unprepared ahead of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

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Likud, a coalition of right-wing parties, won 43 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats (to Labor’s 32), a plurality. Likud succeeded in attracting the votes of constituencies seen as neglected by Labor — notably religious Jews and Mizrahim, Jews of Middle Eastern descent. Begin, Likud’s leader, was 63 at the time and had survived the Soviet Gulag. As a leader of the Irgun, a pre-state right-wing militia that attacked British positions before 1948, Begin was branded by some as a terrorist. As prime minister, he encouraged Israeli West Bank settlement, was hawkish on defense policy and favored economic liberalization.

This year’s Indian election shares some distinct characteristics. The INC, which previously dominated Indian politics with secular, social-democratic policies, was seen by voters as corrupt. Like Likud, the winning Indian BJP party combines right-wing policies with promises of economic liberalization. And BJP’s leader, Narendra Modi, is 64 and like Begin comes with a story of past personal struggle: he grew up poor, helping his father sell tea as a child. And Modi, like Begin, began his career in a right-wing organization seen as controversial.

Of course, there are clear differences. India’s BJP has won an outright majority of parliament, while Likud had to create a coalition with religious and centrist parties. And while Likud has historically been sympathetic to Israel’s religious sector, and has always partnered with religious parties, it is secular while BJP is explicitly religious.

The 1977 result surprised some of Israel’s pundits, but Likud kept on winning. While Labor ruled Israel’s first three decades, Likud or its offshoots have led the government for all but 9 of the past 34 years. BJP can only hope for such continued success.

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Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.