Strongmen and Fragile Democracies

By David KayeJune 22, 2017

Strongmen and Fragile Democracies

A Question of Order by Basharat Peer

IN HIS INTRODUCTION to Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (1990), Eric Hobsbawm argued that nations are “dual phenomena, constructed essentially from above, but which cannot be understood unless also analysed from below.” We need to pay attention to this view “from below,” he wrote, to the “assumptions, hopes, needs, longings and interests of ordinary people.”

Hobsbawm would have approved of this new book by Basharat Peer. In A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen, Peer gives us two parallel renderings of the abuse of nationalist symbols by the powerful, sharpened and humanized by the impact this abuse has on real people living their lives in the nations their leaders imagine. Yet Peer does more than merely describe the people of India and Turkey as victims: he shows them to be active agents, sometimes supporting nationalist strongmen but all too often caught up in a maelstrom of repression, stigmatization, and violence. Peer describes how Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rose from humble origins to become leaders of their respective countries, and the “terrible human toll” their leadership has had on fragile democracies and their citizens. But he also shows that their messages have found adherents among the people, often the poor but also, sometimes surprisingly, the elite and moneyed classes.

The title promises to address why the “return of strongmen” is “a question of order,” but the book, essentially two conjoined works of reportage, does not really focus on how Modi and Erdoğan were driven by principles of order in the conventional sense (e.g., public order, law and order, economic order). These are not leaders who emerged from an environment of domestic chaos or failed-state strife, despite the economic inequalities and obvious repression and violence they exploited. Instead, according to the evidence Peer presents, Modi and Erdoğan are driven by an immediate hunger for power and an ambition to alter history, to reimagine their nations’ values and place in the world. Modi and Erdoğan deploy symbols, ideas, prejudices, historical tropes, myths, and legends in an effort to remake their countries and consolidate political power. They are, Peer asserts, revisionists intent on “converting the fears and insecurities of citizens into electoral support.”

If anything, order stands in their way. Perhaps they give their voters a sense that their leadership will result in more structure in their lives, or more money in the bank, but Modi and Erdoğan actually benefit from disorder and champion reordering. Think about Erdoğan’s statement following the failed bloody coup attempt of July 15, 2016, which he called a “gift from God,” or Modi’s role in — and silence in the face of — murderous anti-Muslim riots, such as the one in Gujarat in 2002 that left 1,000 people dead.

The titular “question of order” thus does not drive this book forward. Rather, Peer’s account gains momentum, perhaps more in the narrative of India than of Turkey, from the interactions between the leader and his volk, a timely topic in our apparently global populist moment.

Modi comes off in Peer’s telling as shrewd and dangerous, an effective lifelong organizer for the extreme Hindu nationalist party Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) who helped craft a winning message, complete with nationalist pageantry, for the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). His skill as a purveyor of Hindu nationalist tropes carried him all the way to appointment as chief minister of Gujarat in the 1990s. It was during his tenure in Gujarat that the terrible carnage of the 2002 Hindu riots took place. Modi’s response? Refusal to apologize, lack of regret, and this quote from 2013: “If someone else is driving, and we are sitting in the back seat, and even then if a small puppy comes under the wheel, do we feel pain or not?” Quite a statement by the person responsible for the safety and security of vulnerable people in his province.

Peer gives voice to Modi’s casual roadkill in piercing, personal reporting, including the stories of a young man rescued by a Reuters photographer in the midst of the Gujarat riots who became a global symbol of the violence, a Muslim man murdered by a hysterical mob for his supposed slaughtering of a cow, a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University who was charged with sedition for his advocacy for Kashmiri self-determination, and, perhaps most tragically affecting of all, a scholarship-winning Dalit graduate student who wanted to be the Indian Carl Sagan but who, after a suspension for political activism, “hanged himself from the ceiling fan with the blue flag of the Dalit movement.” These stories alone show the power of symbols, of caste, and of religious and sectarian traditions in Modi’s India. But where is Modi himself in Peer’s story? He’s a distant but pervasive presence, silently acquiescent if not loudly inciting, a figure who takes careful advantage of an environment in which nonconformity and dissent mark one as the enemy.

As prime minister since 2014, Modi has presented himself not merely as a Hindu nationalist but as a reasonable and inclusive leader who wants to develop India’s economy and improve the lot of all its people. Peer explores why Modi attracts young entrepreneurs in Delhi and Hyderabad notwithstanding his long-standing leadership of Hindu extremists, taking some well-deserved potshots at those elites who display books by Cornel West and Toni Morrison as “mere signifiers of an Ivy League education, markers of cultural capital, objects devoid of their ideas and politics.” In his campaign for the prime ministership, Modi shrewdly combined a platform of development and economic growth to attract urban elites with “his party’s strategy of religious polarization […] and the exploitation of sectarian tensions to bring various caste groups under the saffron banner of the BJP.” This portrayal of Modi suggests less a strongman, however we want to define the term, than a deeply cynical but profoundly effective party strategist.

The discussion of India has a rich feel: less a tick-tock of Modi’s ascent to and consolidation of power than a personal statement of frustration, anger, and sadness over the rise of the RSS and BJP. Peer’s evaluation of Modi’s political success is fluid and compelling. He seems to share the view of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, whom he quotes in the conclusion as writing, “The cultivation of collective narcissism to stifle all individuality, the promulgation of uncontested definitions of nationalism to pre-empt all debate over genuine national interest, the constant hunt for contrived enemies of the nation, is suffocating thought.”

By contrast, Peer’s coverage of Turkey does not convey quite the same sense of personal stake, but it is an effective story nonetheless. Peer notes a moment — a demonstration in Istanbul following a terror attack on a Kurdish peace rally in Ankara in 2015 — when “[t]he injury and rage were too familiar […] It felt like home, like being in Kashmir in the 1990s.” But Erdoğan does not share the same kind of nationalist-supremacist background that Peer depicts in Modi. He comes across as more personally ambitious, less tied to national ideologies, more flexible in his alliances. In more pronounced ways than Modi, Peer’s Erdoğan seems determined to remake not just Turkish governance but the Turkish state — to acquire an executive presidency, which Turkish voters narrowly approved in April; to control the judiciary and civil service; to dominate, through his Justice and Development Party (AKP), the political fabric of Turkey.

In this sense, Erdoğan’s deployment of the symbols of religion and nation seems much more instrumental than Modi’s. Yet this is not always true. The early Erdoğan, for instance, was a firebrand of a leader: he rose through the ranks quickly, capturing the mayoralty of Istanbul only to run afoul of the strict rules that prohibit “religiously provocative” speech and find himself imprisoned for several months and banned from politics for five years. But as he moved onto the national stage, Erdoğan adopted moderate language, eager to expand the space for Islamic expression in public and political life but not (yet) to overturn Turkish society. He and his new “AKParty,” as Turks often call it, favored the free market and the reforms necessary for Turkey to enter the European Union. These subtle moves away from the Kemalist foundations of modern Turkey attracted liberals, while Erdoğan’s background in conservative, working-class Istanbul attracted rural voters.

Peer highlights the changing currents of Turkish life on which Erdoğan capitalized. He begins with the story of Merve Safa Kavakçi, a Turkish parliamentarian who was the first to don a headscarf in the Parliament, leading to her prosecution, loss of seat, and loss of citizenship. He tells the story of Fethullah Gülen, the erstwhile ally of Erdoğan whose mass religious movement, in the view of many liberals and conservatives alike, cleverly dominated rural education and then infiltrated the government, the military, and the media, ultimately resulting in the failed coup attempt of 2016. Peer relates the stories of working people like Recep Aksoy, who proclaimed himself a communist but voted AKP for the business stability Erdoğan purportedly offered, and Haci Birlik, a Kurdish activist who was killed in the violence of Diyarbakir after Erdoğan determined that the peace negotiations with the PKK were leading nowhere.

A Question of Order presents Erdoğan as a vengeful, ambitious politician who has developed a cult of personality, a picture that Peer does not paint of Modi. Ultimately, Peer’s portrait of Erdoğan’s Turkey is one in which a single individual has developed a party, become that party, and is now in the process of becoming the state. One comes away from the book believing that Erdoğan may be committed to the symbols of Islam — and to a state and society that is Muslim in character — but that he is much more committed to himself than to those objectives.

Both Modi and Erdoğan, despite the vast differences in their governance styles, understand the role of information and the media in their changing societies. Modi manipulates scenes, creates spectacle, seeks to dominate the media. In crushing dissent in Kashmir, his government recently shut down access to the internet and telecommunications networks. Modi’s ability to control information in India generally, however, seems more tenuous, given the vast territory and population he governs.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan has silenced independent voices in Turkey. Beginning well before the attempted coup but accelerating since then, his government has shut down media outlets, imprisoned over 150 journalists and caused thousands of others to lose their jobs, imposed major restrictions on internet and social media access, and arrested judges and academics and civil servants. Turkey is a country under Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian hold, while Indian politics are teetering atop the nationalist foundations exploited and shaken by Modi. Peer’s analysis of how these two strongmen have risen to supreme power in their respective countries is incisive and compelling.


David Kaye is a law professor at the UC Irvine School of Law and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.

LARB Contributor

David Kaye is a law professor at the UC Irvine School of Law and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression. Photo by Geoffrey King.


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