'Striking' parallels between PM Modi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The writer Amitav Ghosh has noted "striking" parallels between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "In both cases", he says, "an entrenched secular-nationalist elite had been dislodged by a coalition that explicitly embraced the religion of a demographic majority". Moreover, secularism was seen by the latter as "a thinly veiled means for monopolizing power and discriminating against the majority".

There are similarities, too, in the "straitened" circumstances under which the two men grew up. While Modi was a tea seller, Erdogan sold lemonade. And, while striving for the top posts in their countries, they both promised "rapid economic growth".

'Striking' parallels between PM Modi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Now, just as the Modi government is laying stress on Sanskrit to emphasize India's Hindu orientation and not because of its admiration for a classical language under an education minister who has not studied beyond class XII, the Turkish leader, too, has vowed to make lessons in the Ottoman language written in the Arabic alphabet compulsory in high schools.

The move has been seen as a part of his Islamic agenda because Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, replaced the Arabic alphabet with a Latin one in 1928. Erdogan's critics have seen his initiative as yet another bid to roll back Ataturk's secular reforms. Under the Modi government, too, there is an attempt by the saffron establishment to undermine what is known as the Nehruvian consensus that lays stress on secularism and pluralism.

In this context, the similarities between Jawaharlal Nehru and Ataturk can also be noted. The chief objective of both was to take their respective countries out of a stagnant past into a vibrant future represented by the modern world.

The transition entailed the embracement of a large measure of Western ideas and norms - in governance, dress, language and behaviour - which could not but downgrade elements of insular, native traditions, resulting in charges of deracination of the people.

However, the similarities between Modi and Erdogan cannot be taken too far because the Turkish leader has lately been following a path which is more reminiscent of Indira Gandhi's emergency than of Modi's tenure.

For instance, Erdogan has had the editor-in-chief of Turkey's largest daily, Zaman, arrested along with the head of a television news channel and dozens of journalists who were suspected to be associated with Fethullah Gulen, a former imam and a dissident who now lives in exile in the US. Moreover, widely acclaimed authors Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak have been pilloried as Western agents.

Indian democracy is far too vibrant to go down such a road. Besides, the fateful consequences of Indira Gandhi's experiments with untruth in 1975 are bound to act as a warning to any ruling politician thinking of emulating her.

There are also major differences between the 1970s and the present. In the earlier period, an already dominant Congress had become even more so under Indira Gandi after the 1971 war that led to the creatio of Bangladesh, while Modi's majority in the Lok Sabha is based on no more than 31 percent of the popular vote.

In addition, he hasn't had easy successes in assembly elections as is evident from the BJP's failure to get a majority on its own in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir.

Modi is also under considerable pressure from Hindu right-wing groups whose anti-minority antics threaten to pull the rug from under the prime minister's development plank. Unless he is able to control them soon, his image as a tough administrator will be tarred.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, or perhaps because of them, some of his supporters have been going overboard in their backing for him and, as a result, urging Modi to emulate Erdogan.

One of his admirers routinely describes him as a Mahatma on the internet while another wants him to follow Stalin's example in silencing his critics and also to "start or purchase" private television channels, newspapers, FM radio stations and the like, instead of banking on the "unpopular and ineffective" Doordarshan and All India Radio.

Such outlandish ideas can be, of course, laughed off except that there is no dearth of people in the saffron brotherhood who do have weird notions - though relating mainly to the past - such as that vimanas or aeroplanes were known in prehistoric India and that the country had exploded an atomic bomb.

Modi himself has been credited with saying that plastic surgery was carried out in ancient times, an assertion for which he has been pulled up by the Indian History Congress.

Similarly, Erdogan has claimed that Muslim sailors discovered the Americas three centuries before Columbus and that the Spanish voyager saw a mosque on a hill on the Cuban coast.

It is from such unscientific ideas that Nehru and Ataturk wanted to extricate their countries - even if they knew that the purpose of these wild claims was to boost the morale of the people oppressed by colonialism in India and medieval despotism in Turkey. But, their repetition today exposes the two countries to ridicule.

Mercifully, in the field of politics, there is no chance of India treading Turkey's path of regression into an Ottoman-style negation of democracy.


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