India is frequently described as the world’s largest democracy, thus leaving the impression that the country has nothing in common with a place like Turkey. In just the past year, the latter has weathered an attempted coup, a large-scale purging of key institutions by the ruling regime, and a president who seems increasingly unstable. But as Basharat Peer makes clear in his new book, A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen, the two places have more similarities than you might think.
Peer, an editor for international opinion at the New York Times and a contributor to the New Yorker, grew up in Indian-administered Kashmir, the contested (and heavily oppressed) region bordering Pakistan. In his new book, he writes about his experiences traveling and reporting in both India and Turkey, describing how two very controversial leaders, Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, used demagoguery to cement their power. (Modi was for many years banned from traveling to the U.S. for his role in presiding over religious violence and ethnic cleansing against Muslims in the state he governed.)
I spoke by phone with Peer this week. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the state of the opposition in both India and Turkey, why leaders don’t necessarily “mature” once in office, and how Donald Trump differs from the world’s other strongmen.
Isaac Chotiner: What made you decide to pair India and Turkey in a book about the return of strongmen?
Basharat Peer: Initially my teacher at Columbia, Nick Lemann, asked if I wanted to do something on India and on Modi. But the minute you start talking about India, you realize this isn’t happening just in India. We talked about what was happening in Venezuela, in Thailand, in Sri Lanka. But one of the things that struck me about Turkey was that both it and India were countries that came out of breakdowns of two of the biggest empires of the last century, the Ottoman Empire and the British one.
In Turkey, you had these modernizing figures, led by [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk, founding a new country, and putting forth a whole project of European modernity. And with the fall of the British Empire, you had a similar figure in love with European modernity, [Jawaharlal] Nehru, who led the Indian project. Both these countries had multiethnic populations and tension, and also violence and population transfers at the founding moments. And then in the last 20 or 30 years you have the wars on the peripheries, with Turkey’s battles with the Kurds on the border, and India’s conflict in Kashmir.
Do the countries’ foundings register in a specific manner today?
In some ways. The whole project of secular nationalism in both these places were projects that were top-down and imposed by the elites, but only with varying degrees of success. Those models did hold for a long time, but there were vast bodies of the populations that were ideologues and who were not comfortable with the default positions of secularism in both India and Turkey. And so we see the rise of more religious politics, whether it is the Muslim nationalists in Turkey or the Hindu nationalists in India.
You label both Modi and Erdogan strongmen, but aren’t they are very different in certain ways?
They are different in terms of the specific events of their history. They are similar in that they were both part of controversial religious traditions. In the ’70s and ’80s, when Modi was a minor figure in the Hindu nationalist movement, they were not part of the dominant line of thought in Hindu politics. The Hindu nationalists rose to power more in the 1990s. Modi himself came to power in 2002, but Modi’s rise was marred, and remains so, by the 2002 violence against Muslims under his watch. He comes to public attention through an event which he hasn’t been able to escape fully. With Erdogan, that was not the case. He was controversial, but he did not come to national or global attention by overseeing some kind of a pogrom. So he rose to attention because it was a time of crisis in Turkish politics, and he, as the mayor of Istanbul, did quite well. The beginning of his story is more positive than Modi’s story.
In terms of governance, they are both largely effective, both pro-market, both believers in what you would call neoliberal economics, and also people who do not like delegating power. Modi ran Gujarat with an iron fist, and he was the only man in power there. It’s similar to the way he runs government as the prime minister. He is not just a first among equals; he is the man. And so is Erdogan. No other Turkish politician or person in government counts for anything, except maybe his son-in-law. The other similarity is their vanity. They are both very powerful public speakers, and they love using hologram technology to be present in different locations. They both have a love of their own omnipresence.
Modi seems to pride himself now on giving off the vibe of a friendly figure who is welcomed in Silicon Valley and places like that. Erdogan seems more tempestuous.
I agree with you somewhat in terms of right now. Modi had 10 years when he was in Gujarat when he was banned by the U.S. State Department for violating the International Religious Freedom Act. It’s also the soft power you have as the prime minister of India. It is one of the biggest markets in the world. But he did make an effort. In the first two years of his office, he reached out. He’s not crude and wants to be charming. He even held a big show at Madison Square Garden, talking about technology and digital India.
But you had the same thing with Erdogan in older days. In some ways the public life of Erdogan can be divided into two parts. He becomes the prime minister of Turkey in 2003, and until the protests at Gezi Park, when that revolt against him helped tar his image, in those 10 years he was very welcome. It was the new Turkish model. In the post-9/11 world, Erdogan was loved in America because he seemed to present this option of a market-friendly, moderate Islam. Erdogan was a great success story for the first 10 years of his rule. But it went to his head, in part because he was so successful. He couldn’t handle it. He thought he was like God.
The hope in America today—the hopeless hope—is that Trump will mature in office. You are saying the opposite happened with Erdogan.
Yes, and I agree with you fully. In Erdogan’s case the opposite happened, and although Modi did use some charm, he is back to his old ways. He talks about the economy, but a nation is not just the stock exchange. When I look at India since the day Narendra Modi became the prime minister, what we have had is extraordinary social turbulence. Look at something you also have in America: hate crimes. It’s not that Donald Trump or Narendra Modi would call someone and tell them to go beat up the next Muslim person you see. But their success makes saying and doing things that were not OK more kosher. Soon after Modi was elected, there was a young Muslim boy in a city called Pune. He was going home after work. Someone said that a Muslim boy had said something nasty, and a gang of Hindu-right thugs attacked him because he was Muslim. And then we had lynchings, like you had in the American South. A man was killed because a Hindu-right mob suspected him of eating beef or killing a cow. The social turbulence has been insane.
And only [recently] we had elections in Uttar Pradesh, which is the biggest state in India. Modi’s party won, and in the campaign he led he used the kind of language that the worst kind of a bigot would use. After the results, after his party won, he appointed the chief minister—
One of the most controversial and racist figures in Indian politics. A bigot. That is the world we are living with. Being in power did not temper him at all.
How would you describe the state of the opposition in both Turkey and India? Would you say that there is stronger, more numerous opposition to Erdogan?
No, I think both India and Turkey right now are properly majoritarian states. The opposition to Erdogan in terms of how the other parties are responding is quite weak. His dominance in the media is overwhelming. In India, the Congress Party is in shambles. There are no significant political figures who seem like they can turn the tide. There are writers, there are activists who have been consistent in their critiques of Modi’s politics, and you see this in Turkey too, with writers and filmmakers and activists who have mounted a serious critique and paid a serious price. The Kurdish political party in Turkey: Most of their leaders are in jail. [Erdogan] uses his fights with Europe, using Nazi references, having ministers bring up the Crusades: We don’t like it as liberals, but you have this emotive power, which keeps a lot of constituents happy. It was the same thing with Modi in the recent election. Bigotry seems to be working at the moment.
Lots of Americans will be thinking about Trump when they hear what you are saying. How do you think he is different from the subjects of your book?
I mean, look, Trump was a big surprise for everyone. Modi and Erdogan are more traditional politicians than Trump. Both spent decades of their life not hosting beauty pageants. They were working with serious political movements in the grassroots. They come from nothing. They are tough men who were dedicated workers. Trump was a great communicator: He tapped into something ugly with American society, a sense of loss and racism. I landed at JFK yesterday, and this was the only time I even thought twice about what my experience at JFK might be. It was smooth, as it always has been. That is the hope—that American institutions are stronger than the ideas of Trump and his team.