Basharat Peer’s A Question of Order: India, Turkey and the Return of Strongmen shows how the air of contemporary politics across the world, is filled with xenophobia and a fear of the democratically-elected autocrats.
Civil liberties, freedom of press and protection from majoritarian tyranny have been the principles and promises of vibrant and liberal democracies, but in today’s political environment across the global order, we see an erosion of these promises. It is from here that the unmaking of democratic societies begins, which are led by the democratically-elected autocrats. Basharat Peer’s A Question of Order: India, Turkey and the Return of Strongmen, discusses the troubling development of the global shift toward the right wing politics and recession of liberal traditions and voices.
In his book, Peer draws parallels between the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – both of who were democratically elected, but ever since their accession to power, have displayed their authoritarian character. Published by Columbia Global Reports, the 170-page book narrates the tale of two biggest democracies of the world – India and Turkey – that are multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies, “where religion and secularism are among the dominant faultlines.”
Rising from their imperial past, both the countries were founded on the values of modernity and led by “charismatic founding fathers inclined towards varying degrees of European modernity.” Marked by free and fair elections, open markets, and freedom of religious practice and profession, the two countries are today witnessing a steep decline in these values and practices. Calling it an “age of hybrid regime”, Peer argues that a fewer traditional dictatorships today does not mean an absence of authoritarianism, instead, “…the world is increasingly dominated by governments that are both democratic and authoritarian on the same afternoon.”
Giving an account of the rise of this trend of authoritarianism with the rise of the ‘strongmen’, in both India and Turkey, he writes,
“The modern strongmen share a certain set of qualities. They embrace militant nationalism, exude and aura of personal menace and strength, persecute political opponents, ad seek to control media coverage. They have little patience for criticism and despise civil society… Strongmen are revisionists who share a preference for rewriting school textbooks, retelling tales of ancient glories, and revolving old wounds. They are united by their promises to make their countries great again.”
With this idea of strongmen, Basharat delineates events in the political history of the two countries that led the two charismatic leaders Narendra Modi in India and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey to use their power as elected heads of state to advance their authoritarian agenda and ways of governance. As far as similarities between the two autocratic democrats are concerned, we see that both Modi and Erdogan imagined their roles as that of the inheritors of the larger historic/mythical role of their countries, for instance, the revival of the Ottoman rule in Erdogan’s case and recovery of the concept ‘Akhand Bharat‘ as part of Modi’s imagination. Both these leaders began with a “big brother” inclusive attitude towards their neighbours, but which has run into inevitable problems, with Sri Lanka, with Nepal and Pakistan for one; and with Syria, Egypt, Israel and the EU for the other.
It is in the nuances of the political histories of both India and Turkey that we see the drastic changes in the social landscape of the two countries that has been dominated by two overwhelming emotions of love and fear.
This takes us back to the Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, where he had remarked, “It is better to be feared than loved, if one cannot be both.” He urged the Prince to avoid being despised and hated. Working on this line, both Modi and Erdogan stirred fears and employed, “the art of converting citizens’ fears and insecurities into electoral support.” This electoral support, masked under the garb of “economic growth” translated into dislodging of the secular ethos, the persecution of minorities, and imposition of the majoritarian cultural nationalism.
The biggest blot in the history of Indian secularism has been the demolition of the 16th century medieval mosque – Babri Masjid – that was razed to the ground by a mob of Hindu fanatics on December 6, 1992. The leadership of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) had launched a campaign in the 1980s to build a Ram Temple at the site where the mosque stood. The judicial delay and the political silence surrounding this tragedy is all the more disturbing, leaving fewer chances of redressal and increasing probabilities of similar reprisals, given the right-wing political reality of the country. The demolition that led to riots across the country emboldened the Hindu nationalists, and the BJP won the 1998 general elections, instilling fear among the Muslims, who bore the brunt of violence.
There were various such incidents of rioting and intimidation that helped the right-wing consolidate their mass base. In the chapter, titled, Freedom for the Wolf, Peer writes about the various incidents of violent majoritarianism that help Modi monopolise power, while at the same time, be a mute spectator at the violence that was being unleashed on the minority Muslim community. From demonising inter-religious marriages as “Love jihad”, to introduction of campaigns like Ghar Wapasi (homecoming/reconversion), to dietary policing, the measures were directly related to Indian Muslims, the largest minority community in India.
“Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep,” wrote Isiah Berlin. In one such barbaric incident, a Muslim man, identified as Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched to death by a frenzied neighbourhood mob over suspicions of his having eaten beef on September 28, 2015, three days after the festival of Eid. While narrating the incident of Akhlaq’s killing, Peer closes the chapter with the remarks made by a young man who he met during his journey to Akhlaq’s village, “There is one difference in living here now. In the old days, if I had an argument I would retort. Now I bow my head and keep walking.”
“Using militant nationalism to beat up on peripheral populations”, writes Peer, “often paves way for the rise of authoritarian figures in the centre.” It is this very strategy that helps these authoritarian figures consolidate their position and monopolise power.
In Part 2 of the book, Peer, discusses the rise of the strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, who founded and led the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Much like Modi, Erdogan too comes from a humble background. While Modi was a tea seller, Erdogan sold lemonade. Apart from the modest upbringing, the two have defied their critics and have demonstrated hostility towards a critical media. Adding to the list of similarities, the two strongmen have upheld the project of development of their countrymen with a stronger economy. However, the model of development that they tout is largely seen as favouring the capitalist elite and big corporate houses, instead of delivering to people living in the margins.
In giving a picture of the strongmen in India and Turkey, Peer has drawn parallels between the two leaders, who he views as strongmen of the present times hailing militant nationalist agendas. Disagreeing with Peer on the parallels between the two leaders, I would state that while the two ‘strongmen’ are similar in their approach they certainly differ in their goals. While Modi has been a representative of a culture of political intimidation of minorities, Erdogan, on the hand, has taken a bold step towards granting legal rights to the long unrecognised and unrepresented minorities in Turkey. Under the Kemalist secular orthodoxy, the minorities, like the Jews, Christians, Armenians and Greeks, were considered a threat to the Kemalist project of ‘national unity.’ Repealing the restrictive minority laws, Erdogan, unlike his Kemalist predecessors, allowed minority foundations to receive grants from foreign countries with official permission; churches and synagogues were granted legal status of “places of worship”, restrictions on minority community schools were eased; the Law on Foundations was modified to allow minorities to re-acquire properties that had been snatched and sold by the state.
Erdogan emerged as a leader who would “speak to the Kurds” in the larger settlement of the “Kurdish problem.” Though Erdogan has recognised the minorities who were viewed as second class citizens under Kemalist Turkey, there are allegations that nothing significant has changed on ground and in practice. The murder of Hrant Dink, a journalist of Armenian ethnicity is one such important case. The minorities face discrimination, as evident from personal narratives in the book, despite the elevation of their constitutional status under Erdogan. Such conciliatory and liberal measures by Erdogan are a straw in the wind, indicating that the foundations of Kemalist Turkey, in which the army wielded power, where minorities were oppressed, and freedom of speech was curtailed, as well as absence of Islamic symbols in politics, may die their own death.
In contrast, the lexicon of majoritarian politics under the Modi government in India has gone from bad to worse with vitriolic remarks made by people in office. Niranjan Jyoti, the then minister of state for food processing industries, in December 2014, “combined bigotry and alliteration” in Peer’s words, and went ahead to remark during a campaign speech, “You have to choose whether Ramzaade will form the government or the Haramzaade will.” Ramzaade means “the progeny of the Hindu god Rama”, and Haramzaade means ‘bastards’. This has resulted in the institutionalisation of communal politics throughout the country and sprouting of vigilante groups that target and abuse the Muslim minority for partaking food ‘forbidden’ in Hinduism – beef.
As far as the political-military set-up of the two countries is concerned the comparison seems inappropriate. Comparing India, in which the military has played no role in politics except in the Northeast and Jammu & Kashmir, with Turkey, where the military has ruled formally and informally for ages, is difficult. If anything, Turkey shares greater similarities with Pakistan than India in that aspect.
A related difference between the two ‘strongmen’ is seen in their approach towards the military. Under Modi we have seen the politicisation of the army and subsequent politicisation of national security discourse – in Turkey, Erdogan has opposed the military.
The Hindutva politics in India establishes Modi as a leader of the Hindu majority with aspirations of a Hindu state. Erdogan, on the other hand, is not outrightly Islamist in his political ambitions. The AKP has never advocated a radical Islamic revolution or the creation of an Islamic state, whereas the creation of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is a stated ambition of the RSS, whose member he has been throughout his life. When, on April 25, 2016, the speaker of the Turkish parliament, Ismail Kahraman, sparked controversy by stating that Turkey’s new constitution should forgo the mention of “secularism” and instead be replaced with “religious constitution” Erdogan professed his support for secularism and asserted that it is a good idea for a state “to stay at an equal distance to different faith groups.” In this context, he remarked,
“If the faith of all religious groups in this country is guaranteed in the constitution, and the state’s equal distance to all religious groups is a foundation, why do you need to emphasize Islam? If I can live my faith as a Muslim the way I want to, the issue is over. If a Christian can live his/her Christianity, if a Jew can live his/her Jewishness or an atheist can live his/her atheism, the issue is also over for them.”
In contrast has been Erdogan’s removal of the ban on the headscarf, imposed by the founder of the Turkish state, Kemal Pasha, who had banned it calling it a “piece of towel or something like it”. Nevertheless it would be unwise to read into this the potential to create an Islamist polity. As Mustafa Akyol, a columnist with the Hurriyet Daily News, argues, “Erdogan’s ambitions are more about power than doctrine. For power, he needs to sustain popular support, and for popular support, he needs to use religion, but only to a certain extent. While religious symbolism has broad appeal in Turkey, a Quran-thumping Islamic state does not.”
Peer writes, “Erdogan’s bid to be a regional, even global Islamic leader would be met with an Arab-Spring-like challenge.” However, this fear of Erdogan emerging as global Islamic leader is far-fetched with no likely domestic or international events suggesting such a development. Though there are some similarities between the two leaders that Peer has discussed at length giving the political context in which they started their political careers and rose to power, the aspirations of the leaders, and their parties, is significantly different. In other words they may use similar tactics, but their strategic aim is quite different.
Peer’s book is a brave and timely attempt to delineate the politics of the right-wing in India and autocratic authoritarian regime in Turkey. Peer, who has himself experienced the tyranny of the majoritarian Indian state in the conflict-ridden land of Kashmir, brings forth the nuanced narrative of the people who have suffered in preserving the true democratic traditions.
The air of contemporary politics across the world, including India and Turkey, is filled with xenophobia, suspicion of the ‘other’ and fear of the democratically-elected autocrats. Peer in the concluding line pessimistically writes, “The age of majoritarian politics is here to stay, and all Modi had to do was stay silent.” As the space for liberal voices shrink in every quarter of the world, the onus lies with the enlightened citizenry that must collectively reject jingoistic nationalism and make such leaders speak.
Adil Bhat is assistant editor with New York-based magazine Café Dissensus. His work has been published in Himal South Asia, The Wire, Kindle, Kashmir Ink, Greater Kashmir, Kashmir Reader, Kashmir Life and Café Dissensus.