In November 2014, six months after the Indian general election that resulted in a landslide victory for the National Democratic Alliance and consequently for the BJP’s leader Narendra Modi, the Indian author Amitav Ghosh wrote an insightful essay on the many striking parallels between Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He had been invited to visit Bogaziçi University and during his stay in Istanbul, while trying to grasp the political shift in his own country, he noticed so many similarities between the political developments of India and Turkey that he warned readers about the Turkish experience under AKP rule as a portent for India’s future.
At the beginning of 2017, in the aftermath of Turkey’s constitutional referendum and the BJP’s new landmark victory in Uttar Pradesh, ‘parallel journeys’ between Turkey and India should be considered much more than conjecture. In his new book, “A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen”, the journalist Basharat Peer provides an extremely detailed and thorough analysis of the two countries, both currently led by democratically elected authoritarian regimes.
These are two “hybrid regimes” whose development and comparative analysis offer an understanding of a broader political situation, characterized by the global rise of illiberal trends, right-wing populism, majoritarianism and militant nationalism. India and Turkey are not in fact isolated cases. The electoral surge in favour of a new class of strongmen, who legitimized by their electoral mandate tamper with liberal democracies, is part of a political shift in several countries across the world, for example Trump’s America, Orbán’s Hungary, Duterte’s Philippines and Putin’s Russia.
So, why focus on these two countries? Firstly, as Peer underlines, there are many reciprocal references between the histories of these two countries; they are “two large democracies, which developed following the collapse of empires, and were both led by charismatic founding fathers inclined towards varying degrees of European modernity.” But they are also two multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies with very complicated relationships with their minority groups, as the author knows all too well.
Basharat Peer grew up in Kashmir during the war, as he masterfully narrated in his memoirs entitled Curfewed Night (Random House, 2010), and has experienced life in a region that has never accepted being under Indian rule with no autonomy. When he travelled to Turkey and encountered the Kurdish question, he immediately discovered many parallels and a similar situation marked by militarization, curfews and disappearances.
Based on on-site research and divided in two parts, each dedicated to a single country, A Question of Order retraces events that brought the two leaders, Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to power.
Thanks to his significant narrative skills, the author revisits a number of the most noteworthy moments in their ascent, lingering on official speeches, political events and public commemorations, but also on news reports about events such as the murder of intellectuals and mega judicial investigations. What emerges is the ability both leaders have shown in developing a new form of populism, mingling identity traits and national pride, a desire for change and simultaneously a sense of revenge aimed at the traditional elites at a national level and at the great Western nations at an international one. By promising to return their countries to success, both Modi and Erdogan are committed to an interesting revision of history that emphasises glory and omits traumatic events and defeats, or smooths over contradictions.
Imagine for example a reassessment of the Ottoman imperial past, which, at a symbolic and colloquial level, has returned to be part of Erdogan’s speeches and is used to create and legitimise a new nationalism to replace Kemalism (which had established a clear break with the Ottoman Empire); or Modi who has himself portrayed for an official calendar seated at a spinning wheel, like Ghandi in his iconic pose, suggesting that he has replaced the man considered by many as the nation’s father. Discrediting the old order by trying to retrieve sensational symbolic weapons has certainly helped both leaders assert an apparent rift with the previous political class, in both cases crushed by corruption scandals, and present themselves as the defenders of the people’s real needs and promotors of an economic miracle.
Pro-business politicians have the ability to mix faith and shopping malls, promote the modernity linked to the global market and advanced capitalism with local religious values. The similarity both leaders share in using religious values, in their references to their faith, which then becomes part of a national consumerist culture and also answers the need of a driving liberal market, is also interesting.
Modi and Erdogan are also similar from a biographical point of view. Both are men of humble origins, both outsiders as far as cultural elitist circles in their own countries are concerned, and they have both been capable of embodying the sense of revenge felt by a large part of the population forever placed in a position of subordination.
During the period in which Basharat Peer wrote this intense book, a year and a half during which he travelled across both countries, the author not only addressed the striking elements of similarity, but also observed the inauspicious effects of the authoritarian shift experienced by both countries.
Thanks to his encounters with intellectuals, journalists, students and ordinary people who experience on a daily basis the effects of iron-fisted polices that also totally oppose all forms of dissent, Basharat Peer emphases, however, how his book is not only the story of how these strongmen came to power and the mechanisms with which they exercise it, but is also the story of all those victimised by their policies. It is a way of doing justice to the bravery of all those who in their own countries fight for respect for democratic traditions and civil rights, dealing with many obstacles, repeated threats and a suffocating atmosphere of repression. It is also, however, a valuable warning to understand what is hidden behind the populist wave and avoid fomenting the birth of new authoritarian regimes arising from society’s anxieties and fears.