The new prime minister was elected to the nation’s top office in his sixties after many years in politics. He had been an opposition leader while another party, tied to the nation’s very creation, ruled most of the time and claimed to be the ‘natural’ party of government. His victory was heralded as creating a new era in politics, with the hold of the old political clique apparently broken for good.
The new PM brought a new economic policy, rejecting the socialist approach of most of his predecessors. He was oriented toward the free market, and toward helping bring prosperity to the masses of poor voters who felt excluded under the old system.
The new PM was a controversial figure, with many allegations about involvement in violence and extremist groups as a younger man. The new PM had, in fact, been called a fascist and a demagogue by his political enemies.
This portrait fits India’s new PM, Narendra Modi—and it fits Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister from 1977 to 1983. Of course there are many great differences in their careers and lives as well, and one should not push the comparison further than it will go. But there are enough parallels to evoke interest, not least the concerns that the individual was an extremist who could not be trusted with power. As Begin broke the power, and socialist economic approach, of the Labor Party ruling clique that had governed Israel since its independence in 1948, so Modi has broken the power of the Congress Party and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that ruled India for much of the period since independence in 1947. Modi’s association with the RSS and Begin’s with the Irgun were the source of many accusations about their political values. Both men seemed to win election by gaining the trust of masses of people who felt excluded by the ruling elites and felt the government was indifferent to their poverty and lack of opportunity. Both men brought a greater religious aspect into a politics that had seemed militantly secular.
One aspect of India’s foreign policy under the Congress Party governments has been hostility to Israel, a part of India’s fealty to “third-world,” Non-Aligned Movement pieties. Today Indian-Israeli relations are better and Israeli commerce with India is growing, but it will be interesting to see if Modi warms the relationship up.
A suggestion: Prime Minister Netanyahu should send Modi a copy of Daniel Gordis’s excellent new biography of Begin, called Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul. And let him draw his own parallels.