With strongman politics on the rise around the world, democracies like India should be worried.
Political “strongmen” are leaders who rule by force and with a sense of entitlement under the garb of democracy. The facade of democratic structures and institutions used by them distinguishes these leaders from monarchs or dictators.
The world is witnessing a right-wing resurgence, with strongmen at the forefront in every corner of this fractured, post-globalization world. At the end of 2015, columnist Gideon Rachman wrote in a commentary for The Economist that, “Across the world—from Russia to China and from India to Egypt—macho leadership is back in fashion.”
Politicians like Narendra Modi, Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are products of these times. They are well capable of capitalizing on the sentiments of anxiety and longing for reclaiming a past civilization.
These leaders appear to be driving a ruthless development agenda and have adopted oppressive stands against minorities. In Turkey, President Erdogan has sprung from political Islam — a form of politics that was pushed back under earlier secular regimes. He has been riding on the “ideal” of changing the secular character of the country. Erdogan has slowly achieved his goal by reviving the glorious past of the Ottoman Empire. In India, the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, motivated by the agenda of “Hindutva” — the notion that India is the homeland of Hindus alone. Prime Minister Modi’s campaigns evoke the glorious past of a Hindu India.
It is easy to notice the similarities between the political journeys of these strongmen — especially Erdogan and Modi — and what is happening to their countries. Both Erdogan and Modi are right-wing politicians who employ nationalist rhetoric. They use religion to cling onto power and push back the secular fabric of Turkish and Indian politics.
In order to unite his primary constituency, Erdogan has been persecuting the Kurds. Similarly, the Modi administration has imposed Hindu scripture study in schools, ignored attacks on Christians, and turned a blind eye toward repeated cases of targeted lynching of minorities. Demonization of the opposition, through media dominance, has been a hallmark of both governments. Erdogan and Modi come from modest economic and educational backgrounds. They have been successful in adopting a “strongman” image, which is extremely appealing to their respective constituencies. They brand the long-established political workings of their countries as elitist (anti-national) and promote populist policies.
The strong resemblance of the two leaders has not gone unnoticed and, both in India and Turkey, the authoritarian tendencies of Erdogan and Modi have brought serious danger to democracy and human rights.
Turkey was founded in 1923 as a secular republic, with its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, being granted a revered status as father of the Turks. Ataturk abolished the Islamic caliphate, and for nearly a hundred years that secular system of keeping religion separate from public life had held strong. How Erdogan has dumped Turkey’s secular experiment and grabbed power should be a lesson for Indians, too. In Turkey, it is about the consolidation of power that will transform the once-fiercely secular republic into Erdogan’s more religiously-minded model. Now, Turks are more likely to see large images of Erdogan’s face in public than Ataturk’s.
Contrary to the founding principles of the nation, Erdogan’s popularity rides on a conservative Muslim base and is derived in part from his assertions that Turkey is a Muslim country. In India, the BJP has been strongly motivated by the notion that the country belongs to Hindus only. Since Modi became prime minister, minority groups have been regularly attacked and live in a very hostile environment. Modi supporters have stepped up their campaign against inter-religious marriages and the consumption of beef. Mass conversions to Hinduism are being enforced by his party activists.
With absolute powers in his hands, Modi can do what Indira Gandhi did in 1975 with what is known as “The Emergency,” or what Erdogan is doing today by placing Turkey under a state of emergency and giving the government every power to suppress dissent.
Religious revivalism is a strong adhesive that binds the core voter base of popular leaders. Use of religion as rhetoric was optimized by Trump in 2016 and exploited to the fullest by Erdogan. Similarly, strong motivation in the form of nationalist sentiments and religious revivalism are being successfully used by Modi, and it currently appears to be the most potent formula for victory in elections. Liberals and secularists term Modi as illiberal — a “fascist” who has stifled press freedom, free speech and is undermining democratic institutions. These were the very traits of Indira Gandhi, which the BJP today accuses the Indian National Congress party of for its historic misdeeds.
Both the Turkish and Indian cases show us what authoritarian populists can do in the long run. They become well capable of delegitimizing anybody who disagrees with them. They can denigrate the opposition, control the media and malign the few who dissent by spreading lies about them.
With expanded presidential powers coming into force following an election in June, Erdogan could remain in office for another 10 years. He has perpetuated a virtual presidency for life, much like Russian President Vladimir Putin who has accorded such powers for himself. It shows that, even if around half of the country deeply hates them, populists like Erdogan can stay in power by mobilizing a fervent base of fake nationalism.
Disenfranchising the minorities in India
The 2014 general elections in India saw a marked reduction in the share of influence of Muslim votes in national politics. It is no longer about economic deprivation. It is about political exclusion for the Muslim minority. For the first time in India, the governing party has no Muslim MP in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament). In the present Lok Sabha, there are only 22 Muslims, accounting for 4.2% of the total number of MPs. In Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims constitute nearly 20% of the total population, the BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate. This is a clear signal of political disenfranchisement for the Muslim minority in India. The government is trying to dismantle the consociational model of power sharing by replacing it with majoritarian tyranny.
Modi has adapted Erdoganʹs formula to reshape India. He has sought to marginalize Muslims and reinforce Hindu chauvinism. Minorities in general feel beleaguered, as Modiʹs nationalism not only excludes them, but portrays them as traitors. Institutions are subverted to serve the prime minister’s narrow political agenda, and dissenters in the media and universities have faced intimidation.
The right wing in India engages in double-speak and clearly intends to rewrite the history of the country and its constitution. While the union minister, Ananth Kumar Hegde, who had remarked that the BJP came to power to change the constitution was made to apologize in parliament last December, he did state as much. Similarly, the right wing Ram Bahadur Rai, chairman of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, said the same thing to Outlook in 2016.
The Rise of Crony Capitalism
The Modi government’s reforms have put India on a rocky road to capitalism. In November 2016, the government announced that, effective immediately, all 500 and 1,000 rupee notes were no longer legal tender. The announcement sent India’s cash-soaked economy that amounted to about 80% of all cash in circulation into a complete spin.
Unusual couple seems to have their first meeting in a very positive way. Erdoğan and Modi. pic.twitter.com/3RPExwk2an
— Ragıp Soylu (@ragipsoylu) May 1, 2017
As if this wasn’t enough, a few months later the government legislated to introduce a national goods and services tax (GST) to replace a series of excise, sales and cross-state border taxes. Small and medium-scale industries, along with the informal sector, have been hit badly. They have either shut down or are on the verge of collapse. Big corporates, in turn, have not faced an impact at all as they neither deal in cash so much, nor do they get affected by something like GST.
The recent example of granting a nonexistent university the status of an “institution of eminence” has further established the government corporation nexus. These corporates are now controlling the state agenda and creating a perception of development through an effective perception management campaign. Wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and this is having devastating consequences for hundreds of millions of the poorest people in India, not to mention the middle class.
Compared to Turkey, then, India has a better democratic framework, but it is under threat. Modi continues to win key state-level elections. His party is on the verge of gaining a majority in the upper house of parliament. The BJP already has one of its members elected as president, Ram Nath Kovind. A lack of effective opposition and a subservient national media are helping Modi on his way. The future of the India’s democracy is at high risk.
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, which has a population of 210 million. India is only 80% Hindu and deeply split on caste and regional lines, whereas Turkey is 99.8% Muslim. Turkey is more or less a developed country, while India still has a long way to go to reach that point. Islam, on which Erdogan rides as proponents of Hindutva point out, is a global religion. On the other hand, Hinduism is the dominant religion only in India and Nepal. An average Indian prides themselves on principles of tolerance, non-violence and coexistence, which are part of every Indian teaching. Unlike Turkey, India has been partitioned on the lines of religion and, as such, the majority of Indians understand the ills and trauma of religious divide.
Unlike Turkey, India’s democracy is deeply entrenched, making it less vulnerable to be ruled by a strongman. For most Indians, it is difficult to imagine the country following in Turkey’s footsteps to become a majoritarian illiberal democracy with an autocrat in charge. No political party in India has ever won more than half the seats in the general elections with a vote share of just 31%. Far from spelling the end of a fractured polity, the 2014 results show just how fragmented the votes were. It is precisely because of this that the BJP was able to win 282 seats with just 31% of the votes. With such a huge majority, the BJP has been able to skillfully attempt to delegitimize all other parties. It does this by accusing — via national and local media — the opposition of being “anti-national.”
2019 General Election
India’s till recently divided opposition has seized on a new way to counter Prime Minister Modi. They have done so by bringing national and regional rivals together to take on the ruling party. The reversal of the BJP’s fortunes in the state of Karnataka — where it won the most seats but was ousted in May by a coalition of the Congress party and the regional Janata Dal (Secular), in spite of intense attempts by the BJP to form a government — marks one more election loss at the hands of a united opposition.
Despite a string of state poll victories, alliances have thwarted Modi in the 2015 Bihar state elections and in the recent Uttar Pradesh and Bihar by-elections. The spate of losses in the Lok Sabha by-elections indicates that the BJP cannot take the opposition unity lightly in the run-up to the general elections in 2019. The margin of losses shows the opposition has managed to transfer its votes to joint candidature.
Moreover, recent events suggest that the BJP’s electoral coalition is showing signs of strain. Existing BJP allies are voicing concerns about the party’s methods, raising the possibility that its electoral coalition could fracture. These ruptures may potentially complicate the BJP’s electoral arithmetic in 2019.
While many details of the 2019 race still remain unknown, its structural drivers are quickly coming into view. Rahul Gandhi and the once-dithering Congress appear more focused and consistent. The opposition, at least rhetorically, is embracing the need to forge a common anti-BJP front.
For the BJP, the 2019 election may just turn from a cakewalk to a contest. Though it is true that Modi and the BJP may have not yet achieved the degree of “state capture” that Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have in Turkey, they are also 11 years behind. If not countered effectively, Modi may very well have powers to do just about anything he wants. With no qualified opposition to effectually checkmate him, the prime minister may just be able to transgress all democratic and constitutional norms.
The path that both Erdogan and Modi are on is similar enough to invite comparison and provoke concern. Warning bells are ringing: With upcoming elections in India in spring 2019, will voters heed the alarm?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.