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Lessons from Turkey

Bhopinder Singh |

There are certain similarities in the political environment of Turkey and India. While Turkey is increasingly veering towards the presidential form of government, the Indian system remains riveted to parliamentary democracy. Both countries share certain procedural and substantive aspects of participative-democracy, including recent concerns on the health of the democratic institutions and the polarisation within society. Constitutionally, both Turkey and India assert that they are secular, democratic and republic. And yet domestic events in both countries suggest a worrisome strain on the constitutional imperatives.

Both countries are the economic engines of their respective regions which have benefited from the early socio-economic investments, scientific-temper and statesmanship of leaders like Kemal Ataturk and Jawaharlal Nehru. Ironically today, the dominant political forces in both Ankara and Delhi are militating against the genealogical moorings of its foundational fathers and successfully insisting on ‘majoritarinism’, as the electoral hook. In both countries, the reassertion of religion is the dominant narrative with the additional weaving of certain ‘nationalist’ agendas.

The conservative-strongman in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has recently defied sceptics and has secured the electoral mandate till 2023. As in India, the ruling Turkish dispensation of Erdogan was successful at positing an alternative to the ‘secular’ hegemony of Kemal’s philosophy and instead, invoked its latent Islamic identity as a compelling electoral theme. Erdogan’s conservative AKP party ostensibly empowered a ‘historically suppressed’ populace and made Turkey comfortable with its religious denomination that influenced the popular imagination. Even the much talked about illiberal trends and systematic curbs on society that dogged the international image of Turkey, came to naught, as the political justification for any perceived curbs and hardships were rationalised in terms of ultra-nationalistic requirements and revolutionary changes. The essential plot of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ ~ with the burden of correcting ‘historical wrongs’ of the previous secularist governments ~ has a familiar ring to the Indian situation.

In India, the concept of Majoritarism is not absolute and all-encompassing, as certain weaker sections of society and castes have not been subsumed unilaterally under one religious identity. The forces of civilisational divisions in India have intensified the historical tensions, even within the ambit of the majority religion. Similarly in Turkey, even the commonality of the Sunni-Islamic identity of the Turkish population with the oppressed Kurdish people has not been able to spare the taint of ‘minority’ on the Kurds. Erdogan has been relentless and brutal on the ‘minority’ Kurds and the recent toughening of his political stand, military offensives and policies was seen as a powerful signal of governance-muscularity in the eyes of the majority Turks. The loosely used term ‘Turkish’ is also a misnomer as it belies the multi-ethnic reality of various sects like the Arab, Zaza, Alevi etc. who were earlier forced to accept a united ‘Turkish’ identity by the nationalist movement of Kemal Ataturk after World War I.

However, beyond the potent formula of religious revivalism, Majoritarism, hyper-nationalism and the effective controls over the media, judiciary and the army, Erdogan has successfully walked the talk of an economic miracle of sorts. Since he first became a Prime Minister in 2003, extolling the lost grandeur of the ‘Ottoman Empire’, promising to end corruption and ensure the uplift of the economically-downtrodden in the rural areas, Erdogan has delivered perceptibly for the common man on the streets. During his tenure, the percentage of Turks living below the poverty line has crashed from 23 per cent to just 2 per cent, whereas the growth-obsessed ‘Erdogonomics’ has ensured that Turkey remains among the fastest growing economies in the world. However parallel news and fears of over-heating of the economy, inflation, crashing of the Turkish Lira and other macroeconomic concerns are either muzzled by the authoritarian strongman or deflected towards ‘conspirators’! Beyond the worries of the experts and intellectuals, the immediate prosperity in the Turkish hinterland has been undeniable, all-pervasive and egalitarian, whatever be the long-term situation.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi shares certain similar qualities with President Erdogan, notably oratorical skills, appealing to populist basic instincts, control-centricity and postured-muscularity of governance that makes him popular amongst a vast section of the masses. Both leaders are consummate politicians with a permanent eye on their respective cadres, even at the cost of statesmanship or international opprobrium.

However unlike Erdogan’s long run in power, Prime Minister Modi’s government has just crossed the four-year mark and the economic delivery is just not the same, as in the Turkish context. The gGvernment in India is still attributing its socio-economic woes on ‘those sixty years’, and the promised economic mantra of acche din is still in the realm of work-in-progress. Supposedly-revolutionary steps such demonetisation, GST and the ‘clean-up’ of the banking sector has been matched by a growing set of sceptics who threatens to derail the eerily familiar story of the ‘fastest growing economy’ in Turkey. Opposition leaders are increasingly pointing to the lopsided success of the Indian economy that is fuelling the statistical growth and the sure signs of the spiralling rural distress was manifest in the recent state elections. The essential lack of the economic-tailwind in the Indian political narrative differentiates it from the Erdogan model.

Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Opposition in India ~ as in Turkey ~ lacks both cohesion and a compelling face. Yet the last year of the five-year tenure can throw up surprises, especially if the socio-economic situation worsens further still. Unlike Turkey, the constitutional, legislative, media and other institutions are relatively more independent and cannot be subjected to repressive control, beyond a point. The Indian democracy is ironically both mature and very fickle, as the results in the pressure-cooker of Majoritarian politics i.e. Uttar Pradesh showcased. Clearly, while there are similarities of a strong leader in both Ankara and Delhi, Erdogan had a very vital advantage of economic results and the ability to fund the populist schemes (irrespective of the long-term consequences) ~ neither of which are applicable for the incumbent government in Delhi. The Erdogan model has delivered electorally, while Delhi awaits 2019.


The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry