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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. RANDY QUAN FOR THE GlOBE AND MAIL (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. RANDY QUAN FOR THE GlOBE AND MAIL (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Doug Saunders

Will India choose Erdogan’s path? Add to ...

Your country, which is large, important and troubled but no longer trapped in poverty, is facing a historic election. On the ballot before you are two choices.

The first choice is the ruling party, which has governed for decades and is justifiably revered for its secularism and its role in modernizing your country. But in recent years, it has become corrupt, insular and economically illiterate, and its new leaders look even worse.

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The second choice is the religious guy. He comes from a bold entrepreneurial background and has smart ideas for raising the rest of the country from its quagmire of stalled progress. But his political party has roots in religious extremism. He says it has given up its spiritual cause and will govern for everyone, but some of its members seem to disprove this.

That’s the decision India faces as it prepares for its national election in April and May. (Elections are drawn-out affairs in the world’s largest democracy.) And it was almost exactly the same decision Turkey faced 12 years ago, when the Justice and Development Party was first swept into office. It’s worth comparing the two.

In India, the religious guy is Narendra Modi. He’s chief minister of Gujarat, a state famous for producing ambitious merchants. He comes from a family of grocers and ran a tea stall as a kid: He embodies India’s entrepreneurial dream, and is running on his record of having made that dream real for millions of poor Gujaratis.

Mr. Modi’s rival, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party (which has ruled India for five of the past six decades), may be a well-educated direct descendant of Jawaharal Nehru, but is almost comically inept at campaigning and has displayed little interest in reforming his party or India.

Indians hope Mr. Modi’s practical economic plans will break the stalled, corruption-riddled mess created by the Congress-led government of the past 10 years, which has left an embarrassingly large part of the population in rural poverty while other developing nations have soared ahead.

But Mr. Modi is the candidate of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has a lengthy, ambiguous relationship to Hindu extremist violence. In 2002, while India was governed by the BJP and Mr. Modi was in his first term in Gujarat, a series of violent and politically orchestrated Hindu riots, which have been likened to pogroms, tore across western India, killing perhaps 2,000 Muslims and uprooting countless more.

While Mr. Modi has been repeatedly acquitted of any direct complicity, it’s clear that BJP authorities, state and national, had little interest in either preventing or stopping the violence (the BJP prime minister later apologized for this inaction), or in reinforcing India’s multifaith, multiethnic identity.

Many Indians wonder, with good reason, whether it’s worth risking a return to extremism in order to win stronger economic recovery and an end to poverty.

A dozen years ago, Turks faced an equally stark version of this choice, and it remains their core problem today. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was Turkey’s version of Mr. Modi: a child of rural-to-urban migrant merchants, he represented a new entrepreneurial class and wanted to open Turkey further to Europe’s economy and politics.

Mr. Erdogan was also from an Islamist background. He was a religious man who had said things in the past suggesting a tolerance for extremism. Secular Turks had good reason to worry about him and the Justice and Development Party.

But the rival Republican People’s Party, despite much more noble professed values, had become tied to a closed, nationalist, state-run economic vision. It threatened to deepen Turkey’s decade-long social and economic malaise and pull the country away from Europe and into the sinkhole of the Middle East.

So Turks held their noses and voted for Mr. Erdogan, and have done so ever since. For a decade, it mostly worked: He largely kept his religious convictions at bay while his economic governance and institutional reforms were impressive. But he has fallen for the temptations of three-term power: Quashing opposition, allowing journalists to be imprisoned, and displaying far too much recent sympathy for Islamic extremists in neighbouring countries. Sadly, Mr. Erdogan’s secular opponents haven’t become much more competent.

What both India and Turkey need is a new generation of political party – one that is secular without being closed-minded and nationalistic, one that can govern the majority without insulting the minority, one that looks to the future and abandons outdated traditions. Until then, voters will be tempted to hold their noses – and elections will be dangerous gambles.

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