As Narendra Modi stormed into the consciousness of the world beyond India, analysts everywhere scrambled to interpret him for their readers and viewers. The easiest interpretive reflex of all is the comparison; and so it was inevitable that Modi, India’s new Prime Minister, came to be likened to Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Ariel Sharon, Shinzo Abe and Deng Xiaoping. Even Vladimir Putin was invoked as a comparator, notwithstanding the fact that there is nothing in Modi’s record or rhetoric to suggest that he will seek to annex the land of a neighboring country—or pose bare-chested atop a horse.
The analogy that stood out as most informative—and least rose-tinted—was the likening of Modi to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Islamist-democrat Prime Minister. At first glance, the parallels between Modi and Erdogan seem striking: Both men head parties that have expressed disdain for their countries’ secular traditions, instead channeling the religious aspirations of a large section of the citizenry. Both men dominate their parties, there being in neither the Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nor the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) a politician of stature who can mount a credible leadership challenge. Modi and Erdogan profess to be free-marketers, and yet they face accusations of crony capitalism. Both men are known to be reluctant delegators of authority, centralizing policymaking and execution. And both draw accusations of high-handedness from their critics, evoking in those who would oppose them a fear that they cannot be trusted with a pluralist democracy.
Yet it would be a mistake to be seduced by this comparison into concluding that Modi is India’s Erdogan. There are as many differences between the two as there are similarities. More important, the differences between the politics and institutions of India and Turkey are so great as to render the resemblance between the two men entirely superficial.
Erdogan came to power in 2003, bristling to undo the Kemalist state. From the beginning, he sought to roll back laws and practices that barred Turkey’s overwhelmingly Muslim population from being as Muslim in public as they wished to be. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk espoused a radical secularism that suppressed much of the culture of ordinary Turks, and Erdogan’s project was a counterrevolution against the founder of the Turkish republic.
Modi’s cultural revolution does not call for a remaking of the Indian state. India’s constitutional secularism, unlike Turkey’s, is intended to be benign, allowing the practices of all religions to coexist in the public sphere. India’s Hindu believers, unlike Turkey’s devout Muslims, have never had to fight the state to express themselves in public. Yes, Indian secular elites have cultivated a disdain for the Hindu heartland, but there has been no legal curb on Hinduism in India, no ramming of secularism down Hindu (or, for that matter, Muslim) throats.
Indian democracy is more accomplished, and self-assured, than Turkey’s. Erdogan is an autocratic Prime Minister in a rudderless democracy whose institutional checks are feeble. Modi may dominate the BJP, but Erdogan incarnates the AKP. India’s federal structure ensures that there are limits on even the most autocratic Prime Minister. You want to build a state-of-the-art highway between Delhi and Mumbai? You have to negotiate passage with the chief ministers of at least four states. Erdogan, by contrast, can do as he pleases.
There is also the difference in international stature between India and Turkey that will bring about its own curbs on Modi. Turkey is a middling regional power that has, under Erdogan, squandered every diplomatic chip that Ankara once possessed. Even as he has nurtured economic growth, Erdogan has presided over the global shrinking of Turkey.
Modi, on the other hand, seeks the aggrandizing of India, the building of new relations, not the dismantling of old ones. And whatever his likeness to Erdogan, there is one crucial difference: he is a man of almost disconcerting discipline. It is inconceivable that he would wade into a crowd, fists flailing, shrieking “spawn of Israel” at a protester, as Erdogan did recently.
There is nothing Modi measures so carefully as his own words.
Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution
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