Will India’s Modi follow the steps of Turkey’s Erdoğan?

Will India’s Modi follow the steps of Turkey’s Erdoğan?

India’s ambassador to Turkey preferred to abstain from this year’s commemoration ceremony organized each April 24 for the fallen soldiers of the Gallipoli battles that took place during World War I.

Sumita Gongulee Thomas was resentful to the fact that during last year’s ceremony, an imam prayed for all of the fallen soldiers of all monotheistic religions, whereas no such religious prayer was foreseen for hundreds of soldiers from India that lay in Gallipoli.

While her request, in her own words, for a more “secular” ceremony was taken into account this year, her compatriots back in India were busy voting to bring a man to power who is heading a party that has expressed disdain for the country’s secular traditions.

When it became official on May 16 that Narendra Modi’s BJP won the biggest victory out of any party for 30 years, gaining a majority in Parliament, I was preparing to travel to India. The Indians I have met in Istanbul were underlining the fact that India would be ruled by a majority after so many years. “After years of disastrous coalition governments, many in Turkey were very happy to see a majority government coming to power; they became even happier when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) received a stronger mandate and thus acquired a stronger majority in Parliament,” I told them. “Yet, some among them are today very anxious to see the leader of the AKP started to show authoritarian tendencies after the stronger majority he received.”

The similarities between Modi and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are striking. Both come from modest backgrounds. Erdoğan was mayor of Istanbul, whereas Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat for 13 years. Both “profess to be free-marketers and yet they face accusations of crony capitalism,” says Indian writer Tunku Varadarajan in his article published in the Times.

“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,” writes Varadarajan. (By the way a less significant similarity is their relationship to alcohol. Alcohol is forbidden in Gujarat, where Modi ruled)

When I was in India last week, the newspapers each day were reporting a different decision made by Modi to cut red tape and to make governance more efficient. He seemed to have made a good start, but so had Erdoğan.

“You will have an exceptionally successful few years,” a Turkish friend of mine, who is a frequent traveler to India, told his Indian friends.

But he could not refrain himself from voicing warnings pointing at the Turkish example.

Our interlocutors seemed confident that Modi would not become India’s Erdoğan. Just like Varadarajan, they pointed to differences in politics and institutions reflecting a confidence on the checks and balances mechanism.

It’s good to hear confidence about institutions in India, but these institutions also serve a huge administrative bureaucracy, which is a factor slowing progress. So I am sure Modi will try to make it more efficient. As a foreign observer told me, there is a change in the government, but India also needs a change of governance.

Yet when you argue change for the good of the country, there is a possibility of that change ending up for the worse. There is not a single institution left untouched by Erdoğan, who at the beginning argued it was in accordance with European Union reforms. We then found out about his disdain for the separation of powers, for instance, when he said “the separation of powers is tying our hands.”

So, one hopes that Modi will not attempt to disrupt India’s checks and balance system with the argument of having a more efficient governance.