Secularism is dying in Turkey and India. Despite their geopolitical differences, the two countries now are on very similar paths in terms of domestic politics, thanks to the recent actions of their respective leaders, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Narendra Modi. Both men now dominate the nationalism space so completely that no opponent can challenge them on it. As recent elections in Istanbul and Delhi have shown, any viable opposition can succeed only if it focuses on their misgovernance and also offers voters an alternative economic vision.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) both regard their countries’ official secularism as something imposed on them by a founding political elite with very little connection to the lived reality of Indians or Turks. Erdogan sees himself as the founder of a second republic – a Turkey divested of its secularism and democratic niceties. In terms of foreign policy, Erdogan would like to take Turkey back to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire.
Modi also views himself as the harbinger of a new India. In one of his speeches to parliament, in 2014, Modi said his electoral victory in that year’s election marked the end of “1,200 years of servitude,” meaning he regards not just the British as foreign invaders but also all earlier rulers of India going back to the 9th century. Implicit in Modi’s speech was the notion that, like Erdogan, he would lead his country toward the revival of a supposed Golden Age from the distant past.
More recently, as both India and Turkey’s economies have dipped, both Erdogan and Modi have turned to religious nationalism to shore up their political prospects.
Erdogan’s decision on July 10 to change Hagia Sophia’s status from museum to mosque is part of a long process of erasing Turkey’s official secularism. It was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founding president of modern Turkey, who turned Hagia Sophia into a secular museum in 1935 – a decision Erdogan and his party have long denounced as a snub to pious Turks by an out-of-touch political elite. Erdogan seems to liken himself to Mehmed II, the Ottoman conqueror of Istanbul who converted Hagia Sophia from a cathedral to a mosque in 1453. The Hagia Sophia decision has allowed the Turkish president to play up the association. The widespread criticism of his decision from the West is political nectar for Erdogan, since he can now portray himself as defender of Turkey’s sovereignty.
In India, Modi’s government has promised to build a grand temple to the Hindu deity Ram at his supposed birthplace in the northern city of Ayodhya. The land on which this temple will stand once housed a mosque, built in the 16th century by Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty that ruled over large parts of India from 1526 to 1857, a period falling well within the “1,200 years of servitude” identified by Modi. The mosque was subsequently demolished in 1992 by Hindu zealots affiliated to the BJP, setting off some of India’s worst communal violence.
Last year India’s Supreme Court acknowledged that the demolition of the mosque was an illegal act but awarded the disputed land nonetheless to Hindus “on the balance of probabilities” that it was indeed the birthplace of the deity Ram. This set off massive jubilation; for BJP supporters in particular, building the temple has been as much of a cherished dream as making Hagia Sophia a mosque again was a goal of Erdogan’s core voter base. Indeed, since the 1980s, the BJP’s ascent to power has been based on the promise to build the temple to Ram – a promise repeated in every election manifesto. Coupled with the amendment to India’s citizenship laws last year, the temple construction allows Modi to further consolidate India as a Hindu nation-state, severely undermining its secular foundation.
As in India, secularism in Turkey is now a lost cause. Recent actions driven by religious nationalism are popular with the majority of voters. For any opposition to either Erdogan or Modi to be effective, it must come not from those clamoring for the restoration of secularism, but from those who can highlight the incompetence of the current leadership and also offer a credible alternative vision of economic development.
This may have begun already. In 2019, Erdogan’s party was defeated for the second time in Istanbul’s mayoral election. Ekrem Imamogulu, an opposition politician, focused his campaign squarely on economic development and on corruption in the AKP.
In Delhi, too, the BJP has been defeated twice in a row by the upstart Aam Aadmi Party, which has carefully sidestepped debates about nationalism and secularism and chosen to focus on bread-and-butter issues instead.
Turkey and India may no longer be secular democracies in the future. Nevertheless, so long as they are democracies, it is vital for the welfare of both Turks and Indians that their governments are kept in check by a strong and effective opposition.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.