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Basharat Peer is one of India’s most renowned non-fiction writers and journalists. He talks to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about two democratically elected leaders — India’s Narendra Modi, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have used populism, majoritarian politics and extreme nationalism to push their nations away from democratic traditions. The illiberal drift of the two countries is looking frighteningly familiar to many Americans.
Peer shows how these strongmen “are united in their promises to make their countries great again. They position themselves as saviors on white horses.”
The author, who grew up in India-controlled Kashmir and witnessed the persecution of many of his fellow citizens, also talks about the politicians, journalists, activists and ordinary citizens who have pushed back, some at great personal risk and sacrifice.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
As we are rapidly finding out here in America, having leaders who are democratically elected is not a safeguard against authoritarianism. The need for a sense of security, anger about dramatic change, waves of populism and pushback against the established order by those left behind, all contribute to an often popular desire for strong authoritarian leaders. If what we are seeing here in America isn’t example enough, all we need is to look to Turkey and to India, once considered the world’s largest democracy to see the impact of authoritarianism. The encouraging thing is that we have seen remarkable pushback by citizens, journalists and political leaders, often at great personal cost and sacrifice. We’re going to talk about this today with my guest Basharat Peer. He’s an opinion editor at the New York Times, he’s the author of Curfewed Night: A Memoir of War in Kashmir. He has worked as an editor at Foreign Affairs and written for the New Yorker, The Guardian and The New York Times. It is my pleasure to welcome Basharat Peer to the program to talk about question of order: India, Turkey and the return of strongmen. Basharat, thanks so much for joining us.
Basharat Peer: A pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: When we look at this from a historical perspective, do we have some historical precedent for this idea of democratically elected authoritarian leaders?
Basharat Peer: In the American context, there have been controversial figures who assumed power after coming into public life through election. But in terms of the mode of politics that candidate Trump throughout his campaign that turned toward, what increasingly experts around the world have been calling populism, there were two kinds of populisms in play with Bernie Sanders going for the left-wing populism and Donald Trump going for right-wing populism; which essentially is an attack on the elites but also saying that the elites have been patronizing at the cost of the everyday working man. They have been patronizing minorities who don’t work as hard as, quote unquote, everyday working man. This has been a classic example of that kind of right-wing populism, but I think the roots of populism go much deeper in American history. You had a populist party in the 1890s, the Wallace campaign had elements of this and they were [way harder? And there were others? 02:56]. I can’t think of any other president, I mean there were things that people were already critical of in terms of President Nixon, but this is unique in the American context in the sense of a populist actually entering the White House. I think this might be the first example in the United States. Correct me if I’m wrong. American politics is not really my subject but that’s my sense. We have seen this elsewhere around the world, it’s not a new thing. In some ways, there have been populists across the world at different points in time. In India, we had the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, who was prime minister in the late sixties and seventies. She was an incredibly powerful woman, but a populist and terribly authoritarian. There have been other cases in the world, in the Arab world, in Latin America and other parts of Asia. What we do have now is some sense that America was exceptional and it was providing sense in the American world that this wonderful country is so exceptional, we have checks and balances so something like this will not happen here, but sadly it has happened.
Jeff Schechtman: When we look at the stories that you detail in Turkey and India, talk a little bit about how those particular leaders: Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India, how they came to power in the waves of populism and the nature of the populism that propelled them.
Basharat Peer: So, the ways they came into power was – Erdogan came to power first. In early 2003, he became the prime minister of Turkey. There was an element of populism. There was an element of majoritarian politics, but he was also an outsider. There was an old, elite establishment; the kind of people who would be buddies with Hillary Clinton, like the old democratic establishment, in some ways. This was called the Kemal establishment because they were the followers and kind of thought of themselves as the heirs of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as they call him the father of the Turks, who was the founder of the Turkish Republic. Mustafa Kemal founded and ran the Turkish Republic on this idea of kind of French inspired secularism, which was like a complete disdain of religion. Religious practices were looked down upon and everything had to be French style, European style modernity. So, he was forcibly turning religious Turkish peasants into wine drinking, agnostic Frenchmen. It was a project that exacted a terrible cost. There were institutions that he fixed and built, but socially and spiritually, it did cost Turks a lot. Ataturk’s tradition continued until the nineties. The nineties was a terrible decade for Turkey because all the secularist politicians by then had become very corrupt and the Turkish economy collapsed. They were not effective in terms of delivering, whether it’s healthcare or roads or education, all the basic things that a politician had to deliver. They also had a war going on with the Kurds, which is the big ethnic minority on the southeastern borders of Turkey. At that time of collapse, there was a young mayor in the city of Istanbul. He came from a controversial Islamist tradition, but was also very effective and kind of seen as honest and upright, and that was Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
And that was at the time that Erdogan’s party made a serious attempt to position himself, not in the old Islamist tradition but as center right, Muslim democrats, in some way in an echo of the Christian democrats in Europe. They won and they came to power in 2003 and he did very well. He delivered a lot, he built roads, he brought in a kind of social security net, he brought in healthcare. He even went out of his way and reached out to have peace with the Kurds and actually was rather successful with that to a great extent. So, in some ways the first ten years of Erdogan’s rule was a great success story, but by the time we reached 2013, prime minister Erdogan has become so arrogant and so powerful that he became essentially a victim of his own success. To ensure he remains in power for many, many years after that, he started using all the methods that right-wing populists make: to create a world of fear. We are under attack, I only can save you. As we heard during the Trump campaign, he would only talk about, I will go after ISIS, America is being threatened. It’s creating a sense of national insecurity among the people and offering yourself as the man who could solve that problem and that’s what Erdogan did and repeatedly keeps doing and is now in the kind of final battle of his career, changing the Turkish system of government from parliamentary like the British system to the American system but without the checks and balances that the American system really has in place. It doesn’t give the President complete authority over Congress and everything else. So, what everyone is pushing is an April Referendum to amend the Turkish constitution and if he wins, he will have an astonishing amount of power and will be ruling Turkey until 2029, which is very different from the Indian story.
Modi recently came to power. He came to power in 2014, but it was similar in the sense like the nineties in Turkey; India’s ruling establishment, the Congress party, which is the official secular party, they were in shambles. There was a leadership crisis, the economy was not doing very well and there was really widespread corruption, charges against leaders of their party. Modi targeted that and said this is crumbling old elite that is no use to anyone and I am the strong man. He used this phrase called “you need a man with a 56-inch chest” to solve the problems of a country like India and that was his position, as this outsider, this challenger who will fix the country, who will fight the enemies. He also tapped into what is common with these right-wing strongmen is the dangerous politics, majoritarian politics, to use godless politics against Muslims, against people who he saw as appeasing Muslims or other groups who don’t support any of the majoritarian Hindu project. Through this combination of attacking the old elite and attacking a major minority group like immigrants in Trump’s case, or Mexicans or Muslims. So, Modi did the same and it worked with his populists. There was an audience for that kind of language and he did come into power.
Jeff Schechtman: When we look at the difference between the two, we see a situation in India not unlike the situation in the US, where somebody came to power, Modi came to power as did Trump, trying to exploit the attitudes, the problems, the class divisions that existed to begin with. In the case of Erdogan, how was he able to make the transition and suddenly essentially create all this unrest in a country that he had ruled for so long?
Basharat Peer: He had been able to rule for so long partly because those divisions were already there. So, the fundamental societal division, if you look at Turkey, is that you get about in the coastal cities and the urban centers, you get up to 20%, 25% secularized, Europeanized elite which supports Ataturk Party, it’s called the People’s Republican Party or CHP. Then, you had the hinterland, what you call Anatolia and also parts of the cities because in the Turkish cities in the seventies and eighties, there was massive rural-urban migration, so a lot of the religious peasants and workers came to live in the major Turkish cities like Istanbul and Ankara. So, apart from this 20% urban population which was Europeanized, you had about 60% of the Turkish countryside. It’s almost like you got New York and California voting for the Ataturk Party and then you got everything from Connecticut all the way across the Midwest – until California – voting for the religious parties, in this case the Republican party, and Erdogan’s party in the Turkish case. The majority of the country was religious, despite Ataturk’s attempt to create this kind of non-Islamic, westernized, modern elite. So, it was those people who felt kind of left behind; the religious people who felt that they were being kicked around, not taken seriously by the coastal city elite and they were the ones who voted and helped Erdogan come to power in 2003. He continues to have this support because he delivered all these things and now, when he feels that there might be a challenge to his rule from someone, whether it was a Kurdish leader in 2015 who was very charismatic, that’s when he uses the populism. He’s recently been having a very nasty fight with the Europeans, with the Dutch in the Netherlands. He wanted to go and send his people there to campaign among the diaspora Turks, and when Netherlands objected, some of Erdogan’s ministers brought up the language of the Crusades and he himself referred to Netherlands as “these are people who have the remanence of Nazis”. His foreign minister brought up the Crusades and when you do that, it signals something else. It might not be liked by liberal editors and commentators, but it works as a different kind of signal to his core constituency in the countryside in Turkey and that is what ensures that a leader like Modi and Erdogan wins. He plays on the emotional anxieties, on the fears, on the prejudices of a particular core constituency and deploying these tricks is part of his arsenal whenever he needs it.
Jeff Schechtman: What has been the role of the military in both of these countries, in India and in Turkey? What, if any role has the military and military leadership played?
Basharat Peer: Well, in India the military has always stayed away from politics, largely. I mean, retired army generals might join one of the other political parties, but as an institution per se, the military in India like American military, does not interfere in elections or in running of the Democratic or Republican party. There might be retired generals who run for office, but that’s different. As an institution it’s very devoted and loyal when it comes to the running of the government; it doesn’t interfere. In the Turkish system, because the founder of the republic: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, he was the leader of the Turkish army. He was the victorious military general who founded the republic. So, in some ways the founding fathers of the Turkish republic were like victorious generals, army men who fought colonial powers and kept Turkey free and established the republic. So from the very beginning, what you heard in the Turkish context was “this is a country founded by generals and shaped by these military generals.” So the influence of the military was extremely intense and actually nefarious. After Ataturk’s death in 1938, the Turkish army always described itself as “we’re the guardians of the republic and we will defend any violation of the principles, the founding ideas of Ataturk on which this nation was founded”. So over the years when these small, religious parties would try to raise their head and say “we will conduct the elections”, the military would intervene. Or when the left or the center-right groups would try to argue in the streets or fight it out, every time the Turkish military felt that the order was being disturbed, whether by left-wing activists or by right-wing activists or by Islamist activists, they would just intervene. There have been four coups throughout history and they would ruthlessly crack down on anyone they thought who needs to be put down. In fact, the last coup that the Turkish military attempted was famously called a postmodern coup because it was in the 2000s and they posted a message on one of their websites, which was a threat to Erdogan after he’d come to power. As a politician, Erdogan was the one who kind of proved his mettle by curtailing the power of the Turkish army and Turkish politics. Otherwise, the military has ruled Turkey in a significant manner.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s great similarity though, in both of these instances and we’re certainly seeing the same thing here, is the pressure that was coming down on journalists. Talk a little bit about that.
Basharat Peer: To be a journalist in any of these places today is very difficult. Turkey is a smaller place; it’s 80 million people. It’s very centralized and there’s really two major urban centers, which are Istanbul and Ankara. Most of the big newspapers and TV networks are all in Istanbul. The relationship between the Turkish government and Turkish press has always been a difficult one. They haven’t had the kind of freedom that the American press has, or has had over the years. There was always subjects where you couldn’t really write about, but I think it has never been so harsh for journalists in Turkey as in the last few years. First, it was newspapers which were seen as affiliated with the Fethulla Gulen movement – the coup, the Islamist preacher who lives in Pennsylvania and has been blamed for the coup by the Turkish government. His network did run a whole bunch of newspapers and television stations, so they were shut down. The old, kind of secular, left newspapers which have been around for 100, 150 years or even not for that long. One of the most respected newspapers in Turkey is Cumhuriyet. When I was reporting there, the editor of the paper at that time, Can Dundar came under attack, he was tried in court, a gunman even tried to kill him during one of his court appearances and eventually, he was told to put in his papers and he left and he’s now living in exile in Germany. Similarly and slightly some more time later, there were other journalists from Cumhuriet and from various other independent, opposition newspapers who all slowly lost their jobs or were arrested. Even the few newspapers that survived there today, they had to cut down on the critical coverage in a radical manner.
In India, they don’t block it. India is also a much bigger place, as they say it has multiple countries. There’s a California and there’s also a sub-Saharan Africa right next to each other in India. So, there are places, say like the disputed northern region of Jammu and Kashmir, where I grew up. The press freedom there has been under serious attack. In the last summer, there were newspapers that were shut down completely. There were editors who were threatened and put under serious pressure. Newspapers were locked down and couldn’t print for months together. There’s an area in Central India where there’s been another insurgency going on; this area called Chhattisgarh. The lives of journalists there are very precarious. They come under serious threat from the police, from the security forces, but in the center in New Delhi, which is the capital, you have a very thriving media world. With some honorable exceptions like a newspaper and a couple of other websites, the press has largely kind of not been as independent as it should be. That’s partly because it’s not just coercion, but it’s also money. The owners don’t want to rock the boat because they have many other business ventures, not just newspapers where they need the help from the Modi government. Slowly, there have been bending over, giving up space. So, you find less and less. If you look at the biggest newspaper that sells millions of copies, it’s a shame. There’s hardly any investigative work or serious critical analysis like what The Post or the Times would do on a regular day. There are smaller newspapers and smaller websites who have been doing incredible work in India, still.
Jeff Schechtman: When you look at everything you have witnessed in India and in Turkey and see what’s happening today in the US, are there legitimate parallels to be made or is it an exaggeration to make these parallels? What are your thoughts about this?
Basharat Peer: There are echoes; I mean there are definitely parallels. What you saw in the campaign and what you saw after that. I was a student in New York in the post 9/11 world, worked here as an editor and journalist. The kinds of hate crimes you saw during the campaign or after the election of President Trump –
and I don’t travel much through middle America –
but there were people killed and stabbed in New York City. That was kind of unthinkable. There were three Bangladeshi people who were killed in Queens; that kind of immigrant paradise, nobody has ever threatened Queens. Something did change. His rhetoric – or what happened with the travel ban. This was unthinkable that it comes to America. For a lot of us who knew America, I was a kid who came to university here who was trained in this country and I know the best of America and suddenly, you had to see this ugly side. I have greater hope in the institutions and the resilience of the people. You had the travel ban, but then you had thousands of people showing up at the airports. There were lawyers from ACLU and from other places and that is where the hope lies, and there are journalists. Every single day, there are hundreds of thousands of journalists in this country reporting critically on what’s going on. There might be some people who get carried away with this fake news business, but there is extremely hard working, very intelligent, brilliant journalists working in this country, more than anywhere in the world. That is where I draw my hope and strength from. I am not too worried about America because I think the best of America will save us from the worst of America.
Jeff Schechtman: Basharat Peer, thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Basharat Peer: Been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0), Narendra Modi (Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr – CC BY 2.0) and Tayyip Erdogan (Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr – CC BY 2.0).