India’s ‘overthrow’ moment

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, 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.

There are some obvious differences, but 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 exactly 37 years ago, Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud party displaced Labor, which had governed Israel for its 29 years following independence in 1948.

Labor was formed by David Ben-Gurion, the country’s founder, and 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 United States. Voters also blamed the party for being unprepared for the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Likud, itself a coalition of smaller right-wing parties, won a plurality of 43 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats (to Labor’s 32) by attracting the votes of constituencies that felt neglected by Labor — notably religious Jews and Mizrahim, Jews of Middle Eastern descent. Begin, its leader, was 63 at the time and had survived the Soviet gulag. As a leader of the Irgun, a prestate 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 its leader 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. Also like Begin, Modi 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 (albeit after close elections) for all but nine of the past 34 years. The BJP can only hope for such continued success.

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