Democratically held elections at times give rise to totalitarian regimes, as the triumphant return of Recep Erdogan in the Turkish elections illustrates. As the Turkish strongman comes back to power, there are many who are comparing him with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the prevailing situation in both countries.
When Modi came to power with the first single-party majority of any Indian government in 30 years, given this strong mandate and the BJP’s freedom from coalition partners, many had hoped for bolder reforms. But Modi could also have done just about anything he wanted by transgressing democratic and constitutional norms, with no qualified Opposition to effectually checkmate him, except in the Rajya Sabha. The fact is he did nothing of the sort.
He could have done what Indira Gandhi did it 1974, or what Erdogan just did, within a democratic set up: Turkey was placed under an emergency rule during the campaign in the run up to elections, giving the government every power to suppress dissent.
Erdogan then played on the fear of turbulent times, as did Mrs Gandhi, and stressed the need for continuity.
Further, with the powers approved in the 2017 Referendum coming into force, the President now retains his post till 2028, perpetuating a virtual presidency for life, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin has accorded himself.
Coming to the Indian context, liberals and professed secularists never wasted an opportunity to strike at Modi with every synonym attributed to an illiberal regime, calling him a “fascist” who is out to stifle freedom of press, free speech, and undermine democratic institutions.
These were the very traits of Mrs Gandhi, which the Congress today accuses the ruling regime of, without a mea culpa for its historic misdeeds.
While the Modi regime is accused of destroying media freedom, can we seriously compare this to the curtailment of liberty during Emergency, to Putin’s Russia, to Trump’s daily Twitter-lashings at media, or to the 1,60,000 dissident teachers, journalists and judges detained in Turkey since 2016?
If freedom of speech was denied in India, could anyone get away with questioning the PM’s educational qualifications, his marital status, etc?
Anyone claiming Modi’s four years are worse than Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency needs to revisit history to know the difference between the draconian period that stripped us of civil liberties, when fundamental rights were suspended, and 1,10,000 Opposition leaders and journalists were jailed, and today, when Modi has not yet succeeded in putting Robert Vadra in jail!
If we fault Modi of strongman and strongarm politics, just google the state of affairs in the most powerful nations of America, Russia, China or Turkey, and one will be relieved to compare that the BJP-led government resorted to none of the repressive traits Putin or Xi Jinping , or to Trump’s mercurial traits.
Every progressive nation needs a free-market economy, freedom of speech, and free-and-fair elections. Take the case of Russia, where its institutions are an extension of the Kremlin apparatus, and the murky financial transactions, appointments and promotions that transpire behind the walls are nobody’s business, as Putin regards governing as a secret operation. Another example of monocratic rulers is what the Turkish constitution instituted, by according extraordinary executive powers to President Erdogan to function as a virtual sultan.
Another difference is the way Erdogan and Modi have treated minorities.
While Turkey does not ignore the rights of the Kurdish minority, the President is fully empowered to curtail them on the grounds that “minorities breed terrorists and antinational elements”.
In a country where 74 per cent of the population is Hindu, nothing stopped the current regime from according itself sweeping and plenipotentiary executive powers post-poll victory to assuage the sentiments of the majority Hindu population that voted Modi to power by.
On the issues of UCC and Article 370, it still attempts a consensual approach. We need to pride ourselves on being a vibrant democracy that has a strong federal structure and multiple checks and balances to counter absolutism.
Yet, during Emergency, Mrs Gandhi had managed to subvert the Constitution, surpassing all checks and balances to exercise a totalitarian rule. On the eve of the 43rd anniversary of Emergency, there are misplaced fears that the prospect of electoral defeat could result in history repeating itself. After all, when Dalits and farmers recently exercised their right to peaceful protest and the establishment did nothing to quell the agitation, it is again a sign of a healthy democracy.
However, there are two positive lessons for Modi from Turkey’s elections.
And they are that religious revivalism is a hard glue that binds the core voter base of popular leaders, which Erdogan exploited to the fullest, and is as strong a motivation as nationalist sentiments, which Trump also optimised in 2016.
Both religious revivalism and nationalism have successfully been used by Modi. But when religious revivalism and nationalist fervour is clubbed with economic delivery, it is the most potent formula for victory in elections.
Turkey under Erdogan’s rule presided over an economic boom, tripling per capita income and reducing poverty from 23 per cent to just 2 per cent, thereby expanding the middle class base by delivering on the economy.
Similarly, Trump’s tax cuts have begun to yield results with unemployment being at its historic low in 2018.
So, the most important takeaway for populist leaders across the world is this — that populists who fail on economic delivery to the under-classes cannot hope to repeat their electoral magic.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)