A Tale of Two Countries

A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen BY Basharat Peer. Columbia Global Reports. . $13.

The cover of A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen

Time was when liberal democracy was on the march, across the globe. Or at any rate, so we were told. The collapse of the Communist bloc in 1989 and the rapid democratization of states in Central and Eastern Europe, on the heels of similar transitions in Iberia, Latin America, and East Asia, prompted widespread optimism about the diffusion of Western ideology and institutions. Political scientists rushed to describe what Samuel Huntington famously termed this “Third Wave” of democratization (following the “First Wave” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the “Second Wave” after World War II). Francis Fukuyama even went so far as to suggest that human civilization was approaching its ineluctable ideal. “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,” he wrote in a celebrated essay, “The End of History?,” in 1989.

Not everyone was as roseate as Fukuyama, but the generally buoyant mood persisted for the next twenty-odd years. Russia’s backsliding into authoritarian “managed democracy” under Vladimir Putin raised questions about the universality of such development in the mid-2000s, as did the abject failure of liberalism to take root in Iraq and Afghanistan under American occupation and tutelage. But for every disappointment, evangelists pointed to a countervailing success, such as the continued expansion of the European Union and the rise of Turkey’s Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP). The latter they hailed as a particularly auspicious precedent: an example of “moderate Islamists” espousing liberal-democratic principles. When the Arab Spring erupted in 2010 and spread like wildfire in 2011, the moment seemed ripe for propagation of the so-called Turkish model. Some even began speculating about a “Fourth Wave” of democratization.

To say that their hopes were dashed would be an understatement. Egypt’s experiment in electoral democracy proved so divisive that it invited a military coup and what amounts to a restoration of the ancien régime, redder than ever in tooth and claw; and Syria descended into a civil war that destabilized the entire region and cleared the way for the rise of isis. Meanwhile, Turkey—the “model” Muslim democracy—began exhibiting worrisome signs of regression under the charismatic but increasingly authoritarian leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Since then, things have only gotten worse—and not just in the Middle East. A number of democracies in Europe and Asia have taken similar turns, including Hungary under Viktor Orbán, Poland under Jarosław Kaczyński, the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte, and India under Narendra Modi. Liberal democracy, we are now told, is no longer spreading, or even holding steady; rather, it is in headlong retreat. One cannot pick up a newspaper or a magazine nowadays without reading about how “nationalism is on the march,” as The Economist puts it, or that “the cult of the strongman” is “back in fashion,” as Gideon Rachman writes in the Financial Times. Indeed, the problem is not restricted to democracies of the Second and Third Waves. As first Brexit and then the election of Donald Trump demonstrated, the rot has spread to the very core of the modern liberal-democratic project. “For the first time since the second world war, the great and rising powers are simultaneously in thrall to various sorts of chauvinism,” laments The Economist.

The question is, how much is all this connected? We have already seen how contingent, indeed chimerical, the “march of democracy” and “the end of history” turned out to be. Why should the “rising tide” of nationalism, populism, and authoritarianism be any different? Lists of unsavory demagogues and the obvious similarities among them suggest a trend, but they do not prove its existence—and even supposing there were a linkage, they tell us nothing about its nature or how to address it. If we hope to do the latter, we would do well to direct less attention toward these leaders’ outrageous, analogous—but epiphenomenal—behaviors, and more toward the factors that enabled their rise.

In that sense, Basharat Peer’s new book, A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen, is impeccably timed. Amid all this loose talk of an authoritarian wave, an in-depth comparison of two oft-cited cases is welcome. As Peer demonstrates, the parallels between Modi’s India and Erdoğan’s Turkey are strong. The degree to which their twinned tale supports the argument that we are witnessing a worldwide trend—encompassing even Trump’s America—is, however, another matter.

Peer was born in Kashmir, India’s most restive province, which has long been a flashpoint in conflicts with Pakistan, and where “a brutal cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency . . . has claimed more than 70,000 lives” since 1989. As a result, he has a keen sense of sympathy for the “individuals and families whose lives are shaped, twisted, and often destroyed” by avatars of nationalism. He also has an appropriately jaded view of Indian politics. “The cliché about India is that it is ‘the world’s largest democracy,'” he writes. “Numerical strength seems to magically imbue the country with liberal traditions and equality for its populace.”

He was drawn to write this book, his second, because he “found strong echoes of the Indian story in Turkey,” Peer writes.

These are two large democracies, which grew out of the collapse of empires, and which were led by charismatic founding fathers inclined towards varying degrees of European modernity. They are also multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies where religion and secularism are among the dominant faultlines. Both countries have been waging war against ethnic groups on their borders which sought independence or autonomy. India and Turkey are being ruled by strongmen who are business-friendly politicians, men from humble origins, who came of age in traditions of controversial religious politics.

To that, I would add that both states were born in fits of genocidal violence and massive population exchange—a fact that goes a long way toward explaining the still-sharp edges of their nationalism.

The book is divided into two rather disparate sections, one on each country. The first, on India, is based on a wealth of reporting and structured around portraits of individuals: Each demonstrates either an aspect of Modi’s appeal or an ill wrought by members of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters. We meet the scion of an upper-caste landlord family and a successful engineer in Hyderabad, both of whom are members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a quasi-fascist, Hindu-nationalist paramilitary organization that gave Modi his start and remains BJP’s animating ideological spirit. Through them we learn of the party’s chauvinistic appeal, and how it built a widespread grassroots network and sophisticated social-media operation—neither of which the establishment Congress party could match. We meet a young Muslim man who became a symbol of the 2002 nationalist riots in Gujarat that Modi, as chief minister, infamously declined to stop—as well as a Princeton-educated businessman who flaunts the works of Cornel West in his office but chooses to overlook Modi’s scandalous past because he is an effective technocrat who has delivered economic growth. And we meet a handful of humble Modi supporters, from various backgrounds, who illustrate how his projection of a strong persona and appeals to Hindu nationalism have attracted support from traditionally antagonistic factions and allowed him to transcend divisions among castes. The aggregate of Peer’s vignettes is a broad, rich, but shallow picture of Modi’s India. One comes to understand how the strongman won election in 2014, but gets no sense of how the country came to such a tipping point, or where it is headed.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, 2014. Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Flickr.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, 2014. Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Flickr.

The section on Turkey is different. Presumably because he speaks no Turkish, Peer appears to have conducted fewer interviews and done less shoe-leather reporting. There are still some character sketches, but the bulk of this section consists of narrative. He begins by outlining the agonistic relationship between Turkish secularists and Turkish Islamists, and explains how the latter finally managed to supplant the former under Erdoğan. He describes how the republic was established along strictly secular and nationalistic lines, with religion banned from the public sphere and minorities maltreated; how over decades these strictures were relaxed and religion began to play a larger role in politics; and how Erdoğan built an insuperable electoral coalition by appealing to a wide range of interests. In addition to his natural constituency of pious Turks who felt alienated from the secularist elite, he attracted pocketbook voters who were turned off by the old elite’s chronic mismanagement of the economy, liberals who were won over by the AKP’s pursuit of membership in the European Union, and Kurds who appreciated his attempts at outreach. Peer then explains how, once in power, Erdoğan shifted alliances and played one faction against another, again and again, until all sources of opposition were either neutered, sidelined, co-opted, or repressed, and all levers of power were consolidated in his hands—and all while remaining popular as the sole apparent provider of stability and prosperity. The picture we get of Erdoğan’s Turkey is deeper and more historicized than the one of Modi’s India. But it is also duller and narrower. Peer’s narrative is selective, sometimes to a fault, portraying the rise of Islamist politics in too straightforward a light: as something that was almost bound to happen, for reasons that are never clearly articulated. Again, one comes to understand the proximate causes of the strongman’s ascent—the qualities of attraction, the strategies and stratagems—but not what had changed to make the country susceptible in a way it was not before.

The failure to grapple with those underlying factors is the book’s biggest oversight. It is well and good to explain how Modi and Erdoğan came to power—but the real question is why. What conditions called such figures forth, in this time, in those places? What undermined the old orders, such that they could not withstand the challenge? Peer offers the following, which is not altogether convincing:

The periphery might be ignored but it has a way of intruding upon the center. A nation’s illiberal practices on its borders do not remain isolated there. Using militant nationalism to beat up on peripheral populations often paves way for the rise of authoritarian figures in the center.

That is a plausible argument, on its face: Nationalism begets violence begets more nationalism, in a vicious, expanding cycle. It may even fit, to an extent, in Modi’s case: Tacit support of nationalistic aggression has always been integral to his appeal (or lack thereof). But Erdoğan is a far more protean—indeed mercurial—figure. As Peer himself notes, he came to power in 2001, during a cease-fire, offering Kurds promises of peace and reconciliation, and continued along that path as long as it was electorally expedient. He only reversed course in 2015, when it became clear that resuming hostilities would win him more votes from nationalists than it would lose him from Kurds, thereby enabling him to accrue more power. In other words, Erdoğan’s nationalism is strategic, not integral; it did not manifest itself until utility required it. In no sense did it “pave way for his rise.” If anything, his erstwhile ersatz liberalism did that.

In any case, both India and Turkey have been fighting with minorities in their borderlands for decades. Those conflicts may make them liable to authoritarianism in general—more so than, say, Switzerland—but they hardly explain why strongmen arose in both countries recently and not before. So what accounts for the timing? In his conclusion, Peer implies the answer has something to do with the failures of liberal economics:

A vocabulary of despair has come to dominate our world. Majoritarian politics. Populism. Militant nationalism. Xenophobia. Strongmen. Authoritarianism. In various permutations, these words and concepts are increasingly used to describe the current moment. The neoliberal ideas of the early nineties imagining the world remaking itself by imitating the Western model of liberal democracy and globalized capitalism didn’t quite work out.

This vague statement is followed by obligatory references to Trump and Brexit, to hammer home just how universal the malaise has grown. Once again, Peer’s argument seems plausible on its face: There is no denying that history failed to “end,” as once predicted, or that the financial crisis of 2008 destabilized economies and increased social ferment—a classic circumstance for the exploitation of demagogues. Yet as it happens, when it comes to economics, the demagogues he references have been singing different tunes. Trump and the Brexiters have denigrated experts, railed against globalization, endorsed nativism, and won as a result. They reject the neoliberal consensus. But Modi and Erdoğan do not. They still take pains to emphasize their technocratic bona fides, and (notwithstanding the latter’s increasingly intemperate diatribes against “the interest-rate lobby” and the European Union) they remain eager as ever to woo foreign investors and affix their names to free-trade agreements. For this, moreover, they have been rewarded by their own electorates, and not without reason: India and Turkey are prime destinations for the jobs and factories that Westerners are so exercised over losing.

In the Turkish and Indian cases, a key fact to appreciate is that both countries practiced dirigiste economics for the bulk of their history, and only began liberalizing their economies roughly a generation ago. In both situations, reform was initiated by members of the old elite, and beganlosing steam when it started to disrupt that elite’s clientelistic political networks, whose operation depended on a certain degree of profligacy and corruption. Incomplete as these reforms were, they birthed demiurges—in the form of new urban classes and a new business elite—that the sclerotic establishment failed to satisfy or control. Sensing an opportunity, Hindu nationalists and Turkish Islamists—who had traditionally espoused nativistic economic policies—rebranded themselves as globalists and reformers, and courted these groups’ support. It was the addition of many of these new economic-minded voters to their traditional religious and nationalistic constituencies that turned both formerly marginal opposition movements into electoral heavyweights that eventually swept both strongmen to power.

In short, economic discontent may be a common precursor to the rise of what Peer calls the “new class of elected autocrats,” but that is not to say all cases share roots, or have been exploited in the same way. The logic is different in the developed and developing worlds. Figures like Trump appeal to globalization’s losers: those who have seen their security undermined and their status eroded as jobs flee abroad and are filled by immigrants at home. Such demagogues offer little more than a promise to turn back the clock—to make things “great again”—and may well lose traction once the futility of their errand becomes apparent. Figures like Modi and Erdoğan, on the other hand, draw support from globalization’s winners: those who have been enriched and emboldened by the free flow of goods and investment, and the jobs (or at any rate the dreams) generated thereby. The forces they represent see themselves as frustrated but ascendant, as supplanting an outdated order; they are unlikely to disappear even when the present demagogues—whose parties’ slogans have promised to make Turkey “new” and India “shining”—exit the stage. How much sense does it make to lump these types together? How can we hope to address either, if we insist on viewing them as the same, when one’s solution is the other’s problem?

Alas, Peer does not evince much interest in these matters. That is his authorial prerogative—yet it feels like a missed opportunity. For it is at the structural level that the real causes of, and remedies for, the world’s current crises of governance will be found. And as Peer so ably describes, the crises are dire indeed. For the past year and more, Turkey has been engaged in a bloody struggle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a left-wing-militant–cum–terrorist group that calls for Kurdish self-determination. The collateral damage has been immense. Entire towns in the Southeast have been reduced to rubble; as many as two hundred thousand people have been displaced; terrorist attacks have become numbingly common even in Istanbul and Ankara. Meanwhile, Peer’s native province of Kashmir has been riven by protests and subjected to military curfew. Both Turkey and India are growing increasingly intolerant of minorities and critics, and besotted by conspiracy theories that scapegoat them. Intimidation and arrest of students and intellectuals is on the rise, as is that of opposition politicians.

Peer’s pen is at its strongest when impelled by sympathy or ire to describe such outrages. The understated, unsentimental, but moving depiction of both countries’ many victims and their plight is the greatest strength of his book. Such memorialization is a noble undertaking, in and of itself. But those not yet requiring it may be forgiven if they lament his relative lack of analysis—diagnosis being the first, necessary step toward any amelioration.

Marc Edward Hoffman is an American writer; he lives in Istanbul.