By Shashi Tharoor
While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not achieved the degree of “state capture” that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has, he is also 11 years behind. And the path the two leaders are on is similar enough to invite comparison – and provoke concern.
NEW DELHI – Comparisons are generally invidious, especially when they involve political leaders from different countries. But, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rose to power 11 years before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there is much about their personal and professional trajectories that makes comparison irresistible.
Both Erdoğan and Modi come from humble, small-town backgrounds: Erdoğan sold lemonade and pastries in the streets of Rize; Modi helped his father and brother run a tea stall on a railway platform in Vadnagar. They are self-made men, energetic and physically fit – Erdoğan was a professional soccer player before becoming a politician; Modi has bragged about his 56-inch (142-centimeter) chest – not to mention effective orators.
Both Erdoğan and Modi were raised with religious convictions that ultimately shaped their political careers. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have both promoted a religiously infused, nationalist creed that they argue is more authentic than the Western-inspired secular ideologies that previously guided their countries’ development.
Yet, to win power, Erdoğan and Modi did not count exclusively on religious voters. Both campaigned on modernist platforms, arguing that by implementing business-friendly policies and reducing corruption, they could bring about greater economic prosperity than the establishment they sought to supplant.
Here, Erdoğan and Modi press both the past and the future into service. Erdoğan extols the Ottoman Empire’s legacy, while telling voters that they are not only “choosing a president and deputies,” but also “making a choice for our country’s upcoming century.” Likewise, Modi constantly evokes the achievements of ancient India, which he claims to be reviving in the name of creating a better future.
In short, Erdoğan and Modi have consolidated their power by glorifying the past, while portraying themselves as dynamic, future-oriented agents of change – heroes galloping in on white stallions, swords upraised, to cut the Gordian knots holding their countries’ down.
At the same time, Erdoğan and Modi have painted themselves as political outsiders, who represent the “real” Turks or Indians long marginalized by cosmopolitan secularists. With popular discontent high when they rose to power, such political messaging fell on receptive ears. The narrative of resentment against the established secular elites, peppered with religious-chauvinist discourse and historical revisionism, facilitated their emergence as voices of the middle classes of the hinterlands and second-tier cities and towns.
When Erdoğan first became prime minister in 2003, his position was bolstered by booming global growth, emboldening him to start transforming the Turkish polity. His political formula – a potent compound of religious identity, triumphalist majoritarianism, hyper-nationalism, increasing authoritarianism (including institutional dominance), constraints on the media, strong economic growth, and a compelling personal brand – carried him to re-election as prime minister twice, and from there to the presidency in 2014.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, Modi has adapted Erdoğan’s formula to his own effort to reshape India. He has sought to marginalize Muslims and reinforce Hindu chauvinism. Minorities in general feel beleaguered, as Modi’s nationalism does not merely exclude them, but portrays them as traitors.
Moreover, in Modi’s India, political loyalties are often purchased, and institutions are subverted to serve a narrow sectarian agenda. Dissenters in the media and the universities have faced intimidation. The only area where Modi has been tripped up is GDP growth, owing to his government’s gross economic mismanagement.
On the international stage, too, there are notable parallels between how Erdoğan and Modi conduct themselves. Both pursue activist foreign policies aimed at boosting their domestic image, and have cultivated diaspora support. Erdoğan’s speeches in the Balkans might antagonize the United States and Europe, and even Serbs and Croats, but they raise his stock with Turks. When Modi addresses stadiums full of Indian expatriates on his visits abroad, his speeches are aimed squarely at audiences back home.
Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish analyst and author of a book on Erdoğan, recently remarked, “Half of the country hates him, and thinks he can do nothing right. But at the same time, the other half adores him, and thinks he can do nothing wrong.” The same is true of Modi in India.
Of course, there are important differences between Turkey and India. For starters, Turkey’s population, at 81 million, is less than half that of just one Indian state, Uttar Pradesh, with its population of 210 million. Turkey is 98% Muslim, while India is only 80% Hindu. Islamism, as Hindu chauvinists never tire of pointing out, is a global phenomenon; Hindutva is not. Turkey has no equivalent of Mahatma Gandhi, with his message of non-violence and co-existence drilled into the head of every Indian schoolchild.
Moreover, Turkey is more or less a developed country, while India still has a long way to go to reach that point. And, unlike India, Turkey was never colonized or partitioned on religious grounds, as India was to create Pakistan (though the exchange of populations that accompanied Turkey’s separation from Greece comes close).
What Turkey has experienced – and India has not – are bouts of military rule. In fact, India’s democracy is deeply entrenched, making it less vulnerable to capture by a single ruler. That partly explains why it is so difficult for many Indians to imagine their country following in Turkey’s footsteps to become a majoritarian illiberal democracy with an autocrat in charge.
But while it is true that Modi and the BJP have not achieved the degree of “state capture” that Erdoğan and the AKP have, they are also 11 years behind. And the path they are on is similar enough to invite comparison – and provoke concern. The warning bells are ringing: like the Turkish lira, the India rupee has lost over 5% of its value in the last month. With upcoming elections in both countries – Turkey this month, and India in Spring 2019 – will voters heed the alarm?