Detail from book cover
Detail from book cover

A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen

Apr 5, 2017

Journalist Basharat Peer recounts the rise of two strongmen: Erdogan in Turkey and Modi in India. What they have in common "is a lack of concern or respect for all liberal democratic values, whether it's rule of law, dissent, freedom of expression, or the rights of minorities."

JOANNE MYERS: Hello. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and it is my pleasure to welcome Basharat Peer to this podcast, which is coming to you from the Carnegie Council in New York.

Basharat is an opinion editor at The New York Times. His memoir about growing up in war-torn Kashmir, Curfewed Night, won India's Crossword Award for non-fiction and was chosen as a book of the year in 2010 by both The New Yorker and The Economist. He has worked as an editor at Foreign Affairs; edited The New York Times India Ink blog; and has written for The New Yorker, Granta, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, and The New York Times.

Today we will be discussing his latest book, entitled A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen. In it he writes about his experiences traveling across India and Turkey to chronicle the rise of Narendra Modi of India and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, and how each used demagoguery to cement their power.

Thank you, Basharat, for joining us.

BASHARAT PEER: A pleasure to be here.

JOANNE MYERS: At this political moment in time, many are asking questions about whether democracy as we have come to know it—with its guarantee of civil liberties and protections from tyrannical leaders—is being eroded. In A Question of Order you write about the rise of undemocratic, aggressive strongmen, and focus on the rise of two seemingly very different ones.

In India you have Modi, chief of the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and prime minister since 2014, and in Turkey Erdoğan, the head of the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP/Justice and Development Party), which has been in power since 2002. Two very different countries, two different political systems, and yet you found similarities linking them both. What do these modern strongmen have in common?

BASHARAT PEER: I think fundamentally what they have in common is a lack of concern or respect for all liberal democratic values, whether it's rule of law, dissent, freedom of expression, or the rights of minorities. These people embody a certain kind of majoritarian politics. They don't care about the other stuff.

What defines them as strongmen is that they often come to power in different places in different points of time. In history all these characters have come to power when the kind of old dominant establishment has lost credibility, is seen as corrupt or too establishment; they pose themselves as a kind of outsider-challenger. They are often outsiders; they don't come from the establishment of a particular polity. Then they pose themselves as this vigorous alternative that kind of emphasizes—in a big way it's aggressive masculinity. Strongmen always say: "I don't come from the rotten establishment. I have built my own life. I have built myself from humble origins, and I am the one who will clean up the system. I am the one who will make the country great again. Without me this won't happen, and I am the one who represents the voice of the people."

So that is the classic strongmen playbook. In the case of these two, one can see echoes of various political leaders around the world when one thinks about this.

For me, I was working in India, and I saw a lot of echoes of the Indian story and similarities in Turkey. I was also fascinated by this country—it's between the Middle East and Europe and the crossroads of everything.

It was interesting that Turkey did come out of the debris of the Ottoman Empire. So did India with the collapse of the British Empire. Both countries were led by two very charismatic figures, Jawaharlal Nehru in India, who embraced Western modernity in a big way and whose project was top-down secularism, which in the Indian context meant at least attempting to have equal distance from all religious communities, that the state will not prefer one over the other. It didn't quite happen in practice, but at least in theory it was good.

In Turkey you had Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who is known as the Father of the Turks, who founded the Turkish Republic in the 1920s. He was influenced by the French tradition of secularism, which is a more extreme form of secularism. In Turkey, the project of secularism and Western modernity that Atatürk embraced was to in some ways completely transform Turkish society from the old Ottoman ways to new European ways, because he thought that was the only way he could stand up to Europe. He did build strong institutions, heavy industry, and all of that, but he also was very critical of religious practice and wouldn't allow that.

The Kemalist legacy continued for a long time after his death. That was the mainstream of Turkish politics; that was the Turkish establishment. But then it kind of collapsed through corruption and economic failure in the 1990s and wars with the Kurds and the ethnic groups they didn't treat well, so the 1990s in Turkey became what was called the "lost decade." There were people who were not happy with the Kemalist consensus. As in India, there were Hindu nationalists who were not happy with the Nehruvian secularist consensus.

One of the most important Turkish courts is the constitutional court, and various Islamist parties kept popping up at different points of time in Turkey. They were small, but the Turkish constitutional court would ban them, saying they go against the founding principles of the Turkish republic. So these people never really had a democratic outlet. But with the collapse and the chaos of the 1990s they were finally able to form a coalition government, a little bit here, a little there. But then, in 2002, some of the younger male politicians from the Islamist parties separated from their older uncles and moved to form this new what they called "conservative Muslim democrats," kind of a play on the Christian democrats in Europe; then they formed the Justice and Development Party that was headed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had been a very successful mayor of Istanbul.

So in the early days Tayyip Erdoğan wasn't like what we think of as a strongman. Of course, he always had a very forceful personality, but he was playing nice, and he was in fact trying hard to join the European Union (EU). Joining the European Union for Turkey leads to democratic reforms of various kinds.

Things went well until late 2011, 2012, and then we had the Gezi Park movement and the protests in Istanbul over a park where the municipality was trying to cut down trees and build an Ottoman-themed shopping mall. Everyone was extremely intolerant of the protests. Those famous images of protestors being gassed were all over the global press. That is when we had kind of this moment when we saw him turning into a right-wing populist strongman.

At one point, during the Gezi protests, he was at the Istanbul Airport and talked about the protesters. He was very dismissive. He said, "Look, I'm holding back my people. If I let them out, there will be a bloodbath." That's when he started being really aggressive.

JOANNE MYERS: Toward the Kurdish minorities particularly.

BASHARAT PEER: Right. After 10, 11 years of a rather successful era, that was the descent into this strongman kind of phenomenon.

JOANNE MYERS: What do you think, in terms of his personality, made him turn on the Kurds? He was doing so well, and he had the adulation that many of these strongmen need, and yet he just seemed to break.

BASHARAT PEER: I think in his case it was his extraordinary success. The personality was always there. He used to be a semi-professional football player, and the position he always played was striker. He could always draw crowds. He could use poetry and he could use rhetoric. The man is a completely mesmerizing speaker. I've heard him many times across Turkey, but just the tone of his voice and the crowds go mad. They completely go crazy when Erdoğan speaks.

I think with the adulation, the sense of power, and the success, he reached a point at which he just thought, I have turned this country around, I am the one who did it, and I think beyond a point, like being in power for too long does things to people, and that's what happened. He couldn't tolerate any dissent after that. He took as a personal affront any critique of government policy. He was like, "But I did this for you."

He did transform the country. There is no doubt about that.

JOANNE MYERS: And he is transforming it once again into one that is becoming a very illiberal democracy.

BASHARAT PEER: He is transforming it once again in a different direction.

JOANNE MYERS: How do you see Modi? As a Hindu nationalist, he, too, came into power in a very strange way as well because in some ways he was going after the Muslim population.

BASHARAT PEER: In some ways their beginnings are different. The first time I heard of Modi—I was a young journalist working in India at that time—was in February 2002, when there was massive violence that convulsed the state of Gujarat. It was a pogrom, fundamentally; there is no other way to describe it. There was an anti-Muslim pogrom, and we heard there is a new chief minister in Gujarat, a man called Narendra Modi. He had recently become chief minister, and he was the man under whose watch all of this happened.

A lot of human rights organizations and various groups consistently maintain that Modi's government, and maybe even he, were complicit in not stopping the violence and allowing it to happen. That is a very long-debated story.

But, essentially, he arrives on the kind of global consciousness and on the Indian national consciousness as the governor of this state where the worst kind of televised pogrom in independent India's history is happening. The images on the screen that the entire country were watching were just shocking, along with the reports from that place. Pregnant women were cut into pieces by the rioters; brutality of unimaginable order. But it didn't hurt him. It was really controversial. There have been cases against him. But the population of Gujarat, which is a mostly Hindu state of India, they voted him to power. They loved him. He went on to win the next elections in 2007, became governor again, then he won again in 2012.

Along the way his ambition grew, and he started—it is also one of the richest places in India, so he started projecting himself as a development man. It is very peculiar. In South Asian terms, you still need to build infrastructure; things need to be done. He started branding himself as "Mr. Progress," that "I will bring more prosperity, I will bring more investment, I'm changing things. I am a doer." That is the story he sold for a while, and got greater and greater acceptance through a mix of this governance and investment talk combined with his inherent Hindu supremacist/Hindu nationalist background and history. So he was loved for the combination of these two things. People who were uncomfortable with his Hindu nationalist politics—opinion-makers, columnists, and writers in Delhi or in Bombay—latched onto the "Oh, he's good on economics; he's good on governance" part and kind of ignored the rest of it.

At the time he came to power, the party that had been in power and has ruled India for most of its time, just like the Kemalists in Turkey, is the Congress Party. It was Jawaharlal Nehru's party, his daughter Indira Gandhi's party, and now they were riled with so many corrupt graft scandals, corruption scandals, and a dysfunctional kind of government. They were not very effective at that time in 2010, 2012. That is when he started making his pitch.

By the time he comes to power in 2014, he had run this really successful campaign targeting the old elite, saying, "They are dysfunctional, they are weak, and I am this outsider who has no family." He's not married; he doesn't have children; he's like: "I don't need any money. I don't need anything. I'm not corrupt." And then he used like the aggressive politics, attacking the Muslims, attacking the minorities, attacking Pakistan, to attract the majority Hindu vote.

And it worked, the combination of this, again, governance, critique of the old establishment, and attacking out-group or minority group. We see similarities with that in other contexts, whether in Europe or in the U.S. election. That's how he came to power.

And after Modi came to power, sadly, things didn't change, in the sense that the Indian economy did not really take off. It is doing well; it is doing all right. But the kind of social turmoil we have had in the last three years has been insane.

To think of it, that in 2015 or 2016 a man can be lynched like in the old days, like in the days of the American South and racism there, for having a piece of beef. That's what happens. From the Indian Parliament, if you drive from the heart of New Delhi, in a village like an hour away there is a group of people associated with Modi's party who actually attack their own neighbors. There was this Muslim ironsmith, an elderly man who had three kids, and they said, "Oh, he has killed a cow" or "he has eaten beef, and this is against our religious beliefs." So the man was lynched in his own street.

So in some ways our public discourse in India has been dominated by beef, by banning beef, by beating up people who trade in cattle, by lynching people who eat beef. This is where the discourse has fallen.

JOANNE MYERS: If I could just stop you for a minute and just ask, in Turkey when people started to protest, Erdoğan cracked down and took away many civil liberties. Do you see the same thing happening in India when people become disillusioned with Modi?

BASHARAT PEER: It is happening. The state of minority rights in India or the state of civil liberties in India is really grim. It is actually quite depressing when you compare it even to India just five years ago. It just seems like a different country altogether.

Erdoğan is slightly different because right now in Turkey, especially after the coup last year, things have been really grim on the scale of attack on civil liberties. After the coup in July 2016, he went on these purges, initially saying they're going after the Gulenists, the followers of the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. The Turkish government blames him for the coup. There seems to be good reason for that blame.

But in the name of going after Gulenist conspirators, they essentially went on this completely mad witch hunt. The Gulen people, who are really rich and own hundreds of companies, like major corporations—one of the companies they owned was a bank called Bank Asya. In the witch hunt and the purge, what Erdoğan's people did was anyone who had a bank account in that Bank Asya was arrested and framed as a Gulenist.

At the same time, in the last couple of years there had been serious military operations against the Kurds going on in the southeast of the country. That is another sad story. The repression in the southeast of Turkey under Erdoğan in the last couple of years has been horrific.

After the military operations had started in 2015 in the southeast of Turkey against the Kurds, a lot of academics in Turkey signed a petition saying: "This is not in our name. We don't accept this kind of violence. It should be stopped, and there should be a peaceful solution." Some of them were arrested the moment they signed the petition. But after the coup what Erdoğan did was he lumped the signatories of that anti-war petition with the Gulenist purge. So thousands of them have lost their jobs, and there are many universities which have been shut down. [Editor's note: For more on Erdoğan's crackdown on academics, check out this recent Carnegie Council interview with Robert Quinn from Scholars at Risk.]

The press is in a terrible state. So many journalists are in prison. Newspapers have been neutered and not really allowed to do much. Turkey has a different kind of a problem right now, but it is brutal and grim.

In India it can be more dangerous because when you are consistently going after an embattled minority—and which is a significant minority of 100, 150 million, 180 million people out of a billion-strong country—constant attacks on a particular minority group, violence of all kinds, there is a danger that Modi's people might be pushing India toward a civil war of some kind.

JOANNE MYERS: What do you see then as the future for both these countries, especially in Turkey, where it seems as if Erdoğan has a hold on power that will last until he retires?

BASHARAT PEER: That is why the referendum is coming up on April 16, for greater powers for him, so he can get complete control over Turkish government, to transform the Turkish government from a prime ministerial system to a presidential system. In all likelihood he is going to win, and if things go as they are going he will be running Turkey until 2029.

JOANNE MYERS: It doesn't bode well for Turkey, does it?

BASHARAT PEER: It doesn't, and people are really worried about what happens after the referendum.

JOANNE MYERS: Do you have any predictions for India as well? Can we end on a happy note or not?

BASHARAT PEER: Sadly, we don't have much hope when it comes to India today. Majoritarian politics, bigotry, and racism are all disagreeable things, which one kind of shunned and tried to turn away from, seem to be working for politicians in power. I think India will be shaped by Modi and his Hindu nationalist world in the years to come. It doesn't look very good.

JOANNE MYERS: Before we close, I think I would be remiss if I didn't ask you if you see any similarities between our president here, Trump, and characteristics shown by Modi or by Erdoğan.

BASHARAT PEER: As I said earlier, neither Modi nor Erdoğan cares much for civil liberties. For the head of a state there are particular norms of how to use language, the kinds of words you can choose. The head of a state cannot indulge in hate speech and inciting people to violence or discriminatory laws against citizens, or even visitors. Those are qualities that President Trump does certainly share with them in good measure.

JOANNE MYERS: Basharat, I thank you so much for your insights and for joining us on this podcast.

BASHARAT PEER: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

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