Erdoğan, Modi and the rise of the democratic strongman

By Anupama Ghosh

The rise of Erdoğan in Turkey and Modi in India – two politicians from different political contexts, but shaped by similar historical factors – shows just how much the populist-right is shaping the future of the world’s democracies.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a meeting in New Delhi. Source: Ahmet Izgi

The populist right is on the march across the world. Playing on the failures of static political establishments, insurgent ‘outsiders’ are gaining power on the promise that only they can provide the strong leadership necessary to restore former glory to their nations.

Strikingly, it is in countries at the heart of the global political order that such movements have gained the most traction. ‘Strongman’ politics is no longer a phenomenon confined to unstable or troubled regions but is taking hold in places with strong democratic traditions.

Trump’s rise in America is only one example. Both India and Turkey, countries once held up as democratic models for their neighbours, have seen the rise of increasingly authoritarian leaders who claim to act in the name of the people.

While coming from different political contexts and being shaped by different political traditions, the rise of President Erdoğan in Turkey and Prime Minister Modi in India has been shaped by many of the same historical factors. And this shared history tells us much about the failures of the previous world order and hints at what may be emerging in its place.              

A shared legacy: From empire to anti-imperialism

Relations between India and Turkey can be traced back to at least the 1500s, when close political and economic links developed between the Ottomans and the Mughals, arguably the two greatest Islamic empires. With the decline of the Mughals under pressure from the British Empire, the region’s Sunni Muslims increasingly looked towards the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph as their spiritual leader.   

By the beginning of the 20th century, the wave of modern nationalism had begun to sweep the globe, bringing down the old empire that had made up the old order. Having defeated the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, the British sought to partition it into a series of independent nations, a plan that threatened the authority of the Ottoman Sultan as the Caliph of Islam.

Such a move almost provoked an uprising amongst India’s Muslim population against their British rulers. And while this was subdued with British guarantees about the status of the Sultan, the so-called ‘Khilafat’ movement became crucial allies of Gandhi’s mass independence campaign, in what is remembered as a decisive moment in Indian history    

Meanwhile, the new Turkish Republic was born out of its own struggle against British domination. But the emergent independence movement, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, initially found itself in opposition to Sultan Mehmed VI, who had sought British support, and eventually abolished the Caliphate altogether in favour of building a new country on the basis of secular and nationalist principles.

Forging a new identity: Secularism and nationalism

India finally achieved its independence in 1947, but only at the cost of violence and partition with the creation of Pakistan. Given their shared experiences of civil conflict, communal violence, and mass displacement at their inception, it is not surprising that both India and Turkey sought to unite their ethnic, religious, and linguistic pluralities under a system of secular nationalism.       

But attempts at nation building were not always successful in containing these differences, and social unrest saw both countries slip into authoritarianism. Military juntas took control in Turkey after coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, while India had to contend with widespread repression as a result of the state of emergency imposed between 1975 and 1977.

By the 1990s, divisions in both countries were increasingly surfacing along ethnic lines. In Turkey, all-out war broke out between the state and armed Kurdish militants, while India saw a rise in communal violence, most significantly when riots shook the country after the demolition of a medieval era mosque, the Babri Masjid, in 1992.

The rise of the new right

It is the decline of the traditional secular-nationalist order that marks the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Narendra Modi as self-proclaimed champions of the people. Coming from similarly modest backgrounds, both leaders have reached the highest echelons of power by rallying against a secular-nationalist elite who have been unable or unwilling to share the benefits of economic development.  

It is no surprise that both leaders made their names by promising to tackle the corruption that had marked past regimes, as well as bring about the reforms that could restart stalled economic growth for the benefit of all. In doing so, both have used their skills as powerful orators to draw on themes of the populist right; invoking the image of a glorious national past, the meddling of ‘outside forces’, and the need for a strong, united response.

Armed with this ‘us-against-them’ and ‘with-us-or-against-us’ rhetoric, both Erdoğan and Modi have targeted their critics as ‘anti-national’. And as a result, outlets of opposition opinion have come under increasing attack, with India is ranked at 131 and Turkey at 151 in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

This growing demonization of dissent contrasts with a vibrant civil society tradition in both countries. In 2015, over 50 writers, historians, scientists, sociologists, film stars, and filmmakers returned awards in protest of the authoritarianism of the Modi government, accusing it of promoting conformism and banning dissent. In Turkey, despite severe pressure under the ongoing state of emergency, there remains a strong current of dissent amongst all sections of society.   

In both Turkey and India, majoritarian nationalism is being established in countries that are multireligious, multilingual, and multicultural. Both President Erdogan and Prime Minister Modi, by emphasising a particular nationalist ideology, are aiming to blur these multiple identities. But this has increasingly come at the cost of excluding dissenting sections of the population, whether they be radical students or religious minorities. Thus, in seeking to steer their countries away from elitism and secular principles in favour of conservative nationalism, they are increasingly resembling the exclusionary nature of the regimes they have replaced.

Without any credible political opposition in the country, it seems unlikely that the Modi juggernaut will come to a halt anytime soon. Erdoğan, having won a  referendum on extending the powers of the presidency, looks set to dominate Turkey’s landscape for a generation. It seems that the rise of the populist right is a truly global phenomenon and one that looks set to shape the foreseeable future.

Leave a Reply