The Modi-Erdogan parallel

While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not achieved the degree of "state capture" that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, he is also 11 years behind. The path the two leaders are on, however, is similar enough to invite comparison – and provoke concern. By Shashi Tharoor

By Shashi Tharoor

Comparisons are generally invidious, especially when they involve political leaders from different countries. Yet, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose to power 11 years before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there is much about their personal and professional trajectories that makes comparison irresistible.

Both Erdogan and Modi come from humble, small-town backgrounds: Erdogan sold lemonade and pastries in the streets of Rize; Modi helped his father and brother run a tea stall on a railway platform in Vadnagar. They are self-made men, energetic and physically fit – Erdogan was a professional soccer player before becoming a politician; Modi has bragged about his 142-centimetre chest – not to mention effective orators.

Both Erdogan and Modi were raised with religious convictions that ultimately shaped their political careers. Erdoganʹs Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Modiʹs Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have both promoted a religiously infused, nationalist creed that they argue is more authentic than the Western-inspired secular ideologies that previously guided their countriesʹ development.

The modernist bandwagon

Yet, to win power, Erdogan and Modi did not count exclusively on religious voters. Both campaigned on modernist platforms, arguing that by implementing business-friendly policies and reducing corruption, they could bring about greater economic prosperity than the establishment they sought to supplant.

Here, Erdogan and Modi press both the past and the future into service. Erdogan extols the Ottoman Empireʹs legacy, while telling voters that they are not only "choosing a president and deputies," but also "making a choice for our countryʹs upcoming century." Likewise, Modi constantly evokes the achievements of ancient India, which he claims to be reviving in the name of creating a better future.

Religious nationalist Erdogan supporters (ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Dynamic, future-oriented agents of change? Erdogan and Modi have consolidated their power by glorifying the past, promoting a religiously infused, nationalist creed that they argue is more authentic than Western-inspired secular ideology

In short, Erdogan and Modi have consolidated their power by glorifying the past, while portraying themselves as dynamic, future-oriented agents of change – heroes galloping in on white stallions, swords upraised, to cut the Gordian knots holding their countriesʹ down.

Narrative of common resentment

At the same time, Erdogan and Modi have painted themselves as political outsiders, who represent the "real" Turks or Indians long marginalised by cosmopolitan secularists. With popular discontent high when they rose to power, such political messaging fell on receptive ears. The narrative of resentment against the established secular elites, peppered with religious-chauvinist discourse and historical revisionism, facilitated their emergence as voices of the middle classes of the hinterlands and second-tier cities and towns.When Erdogan first became prime minister in 2003, his position was bolstered by booming global growth, emboldening him to start transforming the Turkish polity. His political formula – a potent compound of religious identity, triumphalist majoritarianism, hyper-nationalism, increasing authoritarianism (including institutional dominance), constraints on the media, strong economic growth and a compelling personal brand – carried him to re-election as prime minister twice and from there to the presidency in 2014.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, Modi has adapted Erdoganʹs formula to his own effort to reshape India. He has sought to marginalise Muslims and reinforce Hindu chauvinism. Minorities in general feel beleaguered, as Modiʹs nationalism does not merely exclude them, but portrays them as traitors.Moreover, in Modiʹs India, political loyalties are often purchased and institutions are subverted to serve a narrow sectarian agenda. Dissenters in the media and the universities have faced intimidation. The only area where Modi has been tripped up is GDP growth, owing to his governmentʹs gross economic mismanagement.

Indian Muslims protest lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in 2015 (photo: Reuters/Shailesh Andrade)
Serving a narrow sectatian agenda: "Modi has sought to marginalise Muslims and reinforce Hindu chauvinism. Minorities in general feel beleaguered, as Modiʹs nationalism does not merely exclude them, but portrays them as traitors," writes Shashi Tharoor

Cultivating disapora support

On the international stage, too, there are notable parallels between how Erdogan and Modi conduct themselves. Both pursue activist foreign policies aimed at boosting their domestic image and have cultivated diaspora support. Erdoganʹs speeches in the Balkans might antagonise the United States and Europe and even Serbs and Croats, but they raise his stock with Turks. When Modi addresses stadiums full of Indian expatriates on his visits abroad, his speeches are aimed squarely at audiences back home.

Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish analyst and author of a book on Erdogan, recently remarked, "Half of the country hates him and thinks he can do nothing right. But at the same time, the other half adores him and thinks he can do nothing wrong." The same is true of Modi in India.

Of course, there are important differences between Turkey and India. For starters, Turkeyʹs population, at 81 million, is less than half that of just one Indian state, Uttar Pradesh, with its population of 210 million. Turkey is 98% Muslim, while India is only 80% Hindu. Islamism, as Hindu chauvinists never tire of pointing out, is a global phenomenon; Hindutva is not. Turkey has no equivalent of Mahatma Gandhi, with his message of non-violence and co-existence drilled into the head of every Indian schoolchild.

Moreover, Turkey is more or less a developed country, while India still has a long way to go to reach that point. And, unlike India, Turkey was never colonised or partitioned on religious grounds, as India was to create Pakistan (though the exchange of populations that accompanied Turkeyʹs separation from Greece comes close).

State capture by degrees

What Turkey has experienced – and India has not – are bouts of military rule. In fact, Indiaʹs democracy is deeply entrenched, making it less vulnerable to capture by a single ruler. That partly explains why it is so difficult for many Indians to imagine their country following in Turkeyʹs footsteps to become a majoritarian illiberal democracy with an autocrat in charge.

But while it is true that Modi and the BJP have not achieved the degree of "state capture" that Erdogan and the AKP have, they are also 11 years behind. And the path they are on is similar enough to invite comparison – and provoke concern. The warning bells are ringing: like the Turkish lira, the India rupee has lost over 5% of its value in the last month. With upcoming elections in both countries – Turkey this month and India in Spring 2019 – will voters heed the alarm?

Shashi Tharoor

© Project Syndicate 2018

Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently an MP for the Indian National Congress and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs.