Reporter

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.


In the past year, our focus on the rise of right-wing populism has centered mostly on the West. The British vote for Brexit, the triumph of President Trump, the electoral surge of far-right leaders in Austria, the Netherlands and France — all were seen as part of the phenomenon of Western voters rejecting liberal dogma and turning toward a more aggressive nationalism.

But as Basharat Peer, an international opinion editor at the New York Times, notes in his new book, you can't consider the broader appeal of "majoritarian" politics without looking further east. In "A Question of Order: India, Turkey and the Return of Strongmen," Peer examines the parallel successes of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, two right-wing religious nationalists who rule vast multicultural democracies.

Peer, an Indian journalist from conflict-riven Kashmir, is concerned about the illiberal Hindu nationalism espoused by Modi and his followers. He saw echoes of such politics in Turkey, where Erdogan has championed a Muslim nationalism that has won support in the Anatolian heartland and among ordinary Sunni Muslim voters but has alienated other Turks.

On Sunday, Turkish voters will go to the polls in a referendum that could deliver Erdogan an even more powerful presidency — and, in the process, cement his rule for more than a decade to come. The past year has already seen Erdogan consolidate his position with large-scale purges, and critics fear the fate of Turkish democracy now hangs in the balance.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife, Emine Erdogan, at a rally in Istanbul on April 12. (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)

Today's WorldView interviewed Peer about his book, the Turkish referendum and the comparisons between Erdogan and Modi. We've lightly edited the interview for clarity.

How significant is the referendum in Turkey?

It is one of the most significant events in Turkish political history. Erdogan could win immense powers and possibly run the country till 2029. If he doesn't win, I fear there would be a great deal of uncertainty. One can't be sure, but there are voices within his Justice and Development Party who are not happy with him. They might feel emboldened. I am worried how he would react to failure.

You began reporting on Turkey for your book before the failed coup attempt in July, which Ankara pins on exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. How did that — and the purge that has followed — sharpen your understanding of what's happening in Turkey right now?

It was sad to see Turkey drift toward chaos, fear and authoritarianism. An immense human cost was paid in the war in the Kurdish areas. The Kurdish party, the HDP, which won big in parliamentary elections in 2015, is now decimated. The hopes of a resolution to the Kurdish problem are shattered. And in the center, after the coup, Turkish politics became paranoid. The purges were ruthless and went beyond any potential role of the Gulenists. Too many lives were destroyed, and Turkish institutions were badly weakened.

Turkey and India are both large, complicated countries in their own right. What do we gain by placing them in the same frame?

A sense of how similar illiberal majoritarian politics are. Both nation-states rose from the collapse of empires, are multi-ethnic societies and have had charismatic Western-oriented founding fathers who undertook major social engineering projects. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk attempted to mold Turkey by way of French secularism. India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, promoted a different kind of secularism, which was not against religion but tried to ensure that the state maintains equal distance from all religions. They became the dominant ideas of both the countries for decades, but there were groups of citizens who contested those civil religions: the Islamists in Turkey and the Hindu nationalists in India.


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sits with hard-line Hindu nationalist Yogi Adityanath, whom he picked to govern India's largest state in March. (EPA/PIB Handout)

But while they emerge from a similar reaction to entrenched establishment secularism, Modi and Erdogan operate in rather different political contexts. Erdogan is arguably much more of an "authoritarian" than Modi.

Erdogan does run a rather different system of governance. He is seen as more authoritarian today, but his first decade in power was a time he was praised and lauded by everyone for his efforts to join the European Union, liberalize some aspects of Turkish life and transform the Turkish economy in an impressive way. Erdogan began very well.

Is that where you see a parallel to Modi?

Modi began with a pogrom. He came to national attention in India in February 2002, when violence against minorities happened under his watch as the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. Allegations that he was complicit or let the violence happen have followed Modi ever since.

But Modi seems to have shrugged off that legacy now. He, like Erdogan, is credited as being a ruler who can "get things done" and revitalize the economy.

For some people, not for all people. He did successfully portray the impression of man who gets things done when he was campaigning. The Indian economy has fared better under him, but it is not quite booming. He has not worked any miracles. Sadly, since Modi came to power we have had terrifying social turmoil in India. Minorities are under attack, civil liberties are being curtailed, people have been lynched on the suspicion of eating beef.

And that is where you find stark similarities with Erdogan in the latter years of his rule. Erdogan's Muslim nationalism and Modi's Hindu nationalism have little room for people who don't belong to their persuasion. They have little tolerance for dissent. They have both whipped up hysterical nationalism and use the talk of war and terror to keep their supporters riled up against perceived enemies. Both have unleashed pitiless violence against peripheral rebel populations — Erdogan against the Kurds and Modi against Kashmiris.

Some people connect Erdogan and Modi’s particular forms of populism to what’s happening with an ascendant far right in the West. Do you see them as part of this global right-wing resurgence?

There are elements of populism in Modi and Erdogan, but they are also very different from the populist movements in Europe or the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. Modi and Erdogan are both traditional politicians who grew up in ideologically committed religious-nationalist political movements. They were not running beauty pageants. Modi and Erdogan come from the established political systems of their countries, though they use the story of their humble beginnings, their outsider status and doses of populism. At the moment, what they do share with the European populists is their majoritarian politics, their targeting of out-groups and minorities within the populations — their disdain for the old establishments.

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.