Last spring, the political map in Israel and India seemed crystal clear. Benjamin Netanyahu and Modi won the elections in Israel and India. It was a painful reminder to all those who hoped that right-wing global wave will ebb away soon.
There were no special surprises in India after the election results were released last May. For some commentators, the only surprise was that the Modi’s 2.0 government did intend to keep its campaign promises. The Indian government did not waste even one moment in its first 100 days. Amending the anti-terror law, triple talaq, abrogation of Article 370 and other tough decisions that have received less international attention. During this time, India saw decision making at an unprecedented pace.
In Israel, however, the political system has been paralysed for six months. Modi congratulated Netanyahu on his re-election and tweeted in both English and Hebrew, but Netanyahu failed to form a government and passed a law that forced new elections in September. The outcome of this week’s election is a clear disappointment to Netanyahu. Modi’s success and Netanyahu’s failure invite a fresh look at the Modi-Bibi comparisons that have been made in recent years.
The comparison between the two is not new. Modi-Bibi bonhomie was on full display during Modi’s Israel visit, and Modi reciprocated the reception he received when Netanyahu visited India.
Israel was admired by Indian leaders as a global success story even when political relations were remote, and of-course it is admired by the Indian Hindu Right. On the other hand, the comparison between the two prime ministers is also a battering tool used by the Indian left.
Former Indian minister and diplomat Mani Shankar Aiyar attacked both leaders with his usual vituperation, “Both are rigid, doctrinaire, right-wing extremists, drawing their breath from two major proponents of violence as the road to liberation and the realization of faith-based nationhood” (Aiyar meant Savarkar and Jabotinsky).
Those who compare the two leaders do so mostly out of admiration or loathing, In this article, I will try to draw points of similarity and difference between the two leaders, points that may evade the admiring/loathing eye that views both as static rather than dynamic leaders.
Both are seasoned politicians. Netanyahu won the 1996 election and became prime minister. He is the longest-serving Israeli prime minister. Netanyahu started his political career as one of a few “Likud’s princes”, but very quickly he became the most admired politician among right-wing grassroots. Modi became the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2001 and has never lost a single Election. Modi’s success as a Chief Minister became a talking point not only within India but across the world.
When talking about prominent leaders in democratic countries around the world, the names of Netanyahu, Modi and Trump often appear together. Netanyahu and Modi – unlike the US president – are first and foremost politicians, they have been operating successfully for decades within complex political frameworks.
Both prime ministers master their craft, they remain indifferent when accused of petty politics, racism or horse-trading. They believe that their voters forgive them – sometimes even proud of them – for their deep knowledge of the little tricks of politics.
In the summer of 2017, the Indian intellectual Ramachandra Guha found himself caught on the horns of a dilemma. Modi’s popularity and his messages frightened Guha, while the Congress Party was a weak and corrupt opposition to Modi’s rule. Guha’s choice to lead the Congress Party was Nitish Kumar, a popular Chief Minister from Bihar, known for his honesty and simplicity. Two weeks later Kumar joined Modi’s camp, and in the 2019 elections, they were part of a successful coalition designed to secure Modi’s victory. Two years before their defeat in the general election the Congress Party paid a price for its inability to play smart politics in the Modi era. Congress won 17 out of 40 assembly seats in Goa in 2017, Modi’s BJP won only 13, but in few years BJP had a coalition and the Congress celebration turned into an ugly blame game.
Netanyahu’s deal with the Radical Right, resulting in its ad-hoc merge into a mainstream religious party in April 2019 Israeli legislative election manifested simultaneously his determination to remain in power, and his familiarity with every existing trick in Israeli politics. Including tricks that have never been tried before.
But the two leaders did not choose a political career for the pleasure of the game. Along with impressive political skills, Netanyahu and Modi have a master plan on how to correct the mistakes of their predecessors. Left and right. In the September 2019 elections, right-wing voters in Israel felt that Netanyahu had lost the way and was engaged in personal survival.
Modi did not begin the process of delegitimisation of the secular Nehruvian Indian project, but in his tenure, the secular ethos reached an unprecedented low. If we asked the main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi a decade ago what his religion was, his answer would be: the Indian flag and his Congress party.
But a decade late Rahul was stressing his Brahmin caste credentials and he was visiting temples. He rebranded the secular Congress party as a party of Hinduism, whatever it means. All these attempts have failed, but they reflect the change that has taken place in Indian politics. Rahul was not alone, even the DMK was fighting the anti-Hindu tag in 2019.
The targeted killing of Nehruvian secularism in India occurred at a time when the Israeli public stopped believing that the Palestinians could be partners in a peace process. In the last three Israeli elections, there was relatively little or no attention to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinian. Netanyahu succeeded in convincing the Israeli public on two issues simultaneously.  The Palestinians do not want peace;  any Israeli attempt to jump-start a peace process will lead to violence. He also succeeded in convincing the Jewish majority in Israel that Israel could thrive and succeed even without a political solution to the Palestinian problem. This is a huge success that changed Israeli politics.
Netanyahu returned to the premiership ten years ago. In those elections, he received fewer votes than his main rival, Tzipi Livni. Livni was the symbol of advancing negotiations with the Palestinians. 2019 elections transformed her into an almost pariah politician. Labour party leader Avi Gabbay fired Tzipi Livni live without even warning her in advance. There was no party in Israel that wanted to cooperate with her. Livni’s main sin was her belief that the State of Israel has a Palestinian partner for peace negotiations.
The attack on Indian secularism began before Modi, and the “no partner” approach was first voiced before Netanyahu’s return to power in 2009, but they were the ones who most effectively promoted and popularised non-apologetic narratives of India and Israel.
We Israelis went to the ballot boxes for the second time in a year and this time Bibi and his allies failed to garner a majority of seats in Israel’s Knesset. India, on the other hand, enjoys political stability that allows the government to govern. In both countries, a majority of the public identifies with the prime minister’s policy conceptions, but Netanyahu has failed to translate this majority into an election victory.
Right parties are on the rise from North America to Europe to Asia, but the difference between Modi’s model and Trump’s model must not be ignored. Whimsical, unpredictable and uninformed Trump represents the attempt to break and destroy everything built before him, there is no strategy to his chaos.
“If I can help, I would love to be a mediator”, President Trump declared at the end of July in his summit meeting with Pakistan’s President, and it’s clear that he didn’t know well the Simla agreement and that ever since then, any attempt of international mediation on Kashmir is seen in both Pakistan and India as a Pakistani victory. The case of Kashmir is not unusual in Trump’s turbulent tenure.
Modi, on the other hand, is a workaholic perfectionist conservative politician. Despite the “tyranny of the unelected” statement, the BJP government has been able to work well with the Supreme Court. In both Sahara-Birla papers case and Rafale case, the Supreme Court accepted the Government’s policy. Rahul Gandhi had to tender an unconditional apology to SC at a critical stage of his election campaign. When the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Election Commission are all blamed for being biased towards PM Modi, it is understandable that Modi knows that he is working well with the Indian bureaucracy.
In Israel, the situation is the opposite. Public officials that Netanyahu has chosen himself are accused of being part of the anti-Bibi “Deep State”, let alone his political rivals.
A majority of 61 out of 120 Knesset seats is required for a party leader to form a Government. The right-wing parties won 44 seats the April 2019 elections. Seven more pro-Bibi seats were lost because the electoral threshold is currently set at 3.25%, and two right-wing parties failed to pass it. If we add another 16 seats belonging to the pro-Bibi ultra-Orthodox parties, we can see that the Israeli voter gave Netanyahu a stable 63-65 coalition seats in April. In the September 2019 elections, the ultra-Orthodox retained their electoral power, but the right-wing parties won less than 40 seats. The right-wing parties lost about a fifth of their power in six months and suffered a stinging defeat that requires explanation.
The strengthening of right-wing parties in the world is sometimes described as an alliance between conservatism and populism. For a decade Bibi was the best driver of the anti-establishment sentiments, and at the same time, he was the experienced and talented leader who avoids military adventures and needless complex diplomatic entanglements.
In February 2012, Supreme Court 9th president Dorit Beinisch had retired. At the farewell ceremony, PM Netanyahu stated that: “A strong and independent judicial system safeguards the existence of the other institutions in a democratic government. I will, therefore, continue to act firmly and shelve any proposed bill that threatens the independence of the courts.” Some saw it as hypocrisy and dishonesty, but in my opinion, they were wrong. In the balance between populism and conservatism, Netanyahu favoured conservatism. There are other examples to prove that Netanyahu as prime minister was a conservative leader most of the time, but that has changed in the past year.
No doubt that the corruption indictment just around the corner, narrowed Netanyahu’s political manoeuvrability and he chose populism and a “Bibi cult of personality”. Netanyahu was and still is bigger than his party, and his legal rescue became the only important political task. Most Israelis have forgiven Netanyahu for some level of personal corruption and did not really think his character was more venal than other Israeli prime ministers in the past. But the Israeli voter was less forgiving this time towards Netanyahu’s unnecessarily divisive and partisan campaign. Netanyahu’s closest allies in the past year were the ultra-Orthodox parties. Netanyahu – to put it mildly – is not a very religious person and the only reason he chose them was their loyalty to him. Not towards his party, but only to him personally.
Unlike India, Israel did not define itself as a secular state. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Israel’s flag, anthem, calendar, language reflect the Jewish character of the country. Since the Jewish character of the State of Israel is guaranteed, the revolt of the middle class in Israel is against religionisation in Jewish secular schools, and the ultra-Orthodox are accused of promoting laws of religious coercion, and of not serving in the army or integrating into Israeli modern society. Netanyahu tried to portray the opposition parties as non-patriotic parties, even though the opposition had four former chiefs of staff and two former defence ministers. The Israeli public can forgive and even like a populist election campaign, as long as it knows that after the election, populism will give way to conservatism. In the last election, the Israeli public feared that even after the election, it would get Trump’s chaotic model rather than Modi’s conservative model. Netanyahu started like Modi and finished like Trump, losing the almost automatic majority he had enjoyed for a decade.