He has already overseen an era of economic promise: Stability, vast infrastructure projects and easy ways of doing business, fuelling a rush of companies to the land. A great communicator, intolerant of dissent, he is self-confident and impatient, evoking mass adulation among his voters, who are not swayed by repeated attacks on him by his nation’s political old guard and liberal elite.
He evokes a past and future golden age, enemies within and without, real and imagined and comes from a party that freely uses religion to stir nationalism. And there are those dark eyes, flashing when he is stirred, easily and visibly, to anger.
The eyes are, as you can see, not the only thing that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, former mayor of prosperous Istanbul and two-time PM of Turkey, shares with Narendra Damodardas Modi, former chief minister of prosperous Gujarat and new PM of India.
Like Modi in the Hindu BJP, Erdogan was a minor party functionary in the Islamist AKP (the Justice and Development Party) before a spectacular rise to national prominence. Erdogan precedes Modi, coming to notice during the 1990s, as part of an Islamic political movement that challenged avowedly secular Turkey.
Erdogan fixed the Istanbul region’s vast transport, water and sewage problems before making Turkey an economic powerhouse and setting it on the path to being a more prominently Islamic nation. He dismantled the legacy of its secular founder, Kemal Ataturk, allowing Islam into the public sphere.
Across an increasingly connected world, and perhaps because of it, there is remarkable similarity in the rise of nationalist strongmen and Right-wing parties, mirroring the emergence of the BJP and Modi. There are usually — but not always — darkly impatient leaders with poor or blue-collar origins, tapping into the insecurities and aspirations of a formerly (in western nations) or eager-to-be prosperous (in the emerging world) working class. These parties, for the most part, do not appear in the poorest nations.
Fuelled by an economic downturn and immigration, Europe, including serene Scandinavia, has seen a nationalist or xenophobic/ultra-nationalist, often anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic Right-wing move from the fringes to the political mainstream in less than a decade, frequently moderating its vitriol to gain a larger audience.
In France, Marine Le Pen (the daughter of a convicted racist, she says citizenship should be “inherited or merited” to avoid Islamisation) has taken the National Front, once a fringe, racist party with barely 1% of the vote, to a party poised to top European polls with support from one in four voters (One in three Indians voted for the BJP).
The Austria Freedom Party, a member of which was forced to resign from the European Parliament after calling it a “conglomerate of Negroes”, polls more than 20%. In Greece, the ultra-Right Golden Dawn — its symbol resembles the Nazi swastika, and many black-clad members, including five MPs, have violently resisted police crackdowns — is now the third most popular party. Similar iterations have gained ground in Britain, Hungary, Denmark, Holland, Norway and Slovakia.
In unstable Russia, Vladimir Putin may not boast of his chest size but his shirtless posturing plays out well. Putin and Russia are a good indication of the interplay between economic growth, insecurity and nationalism in the post-globalisation era.
The economic boom Putin presided over is unravelling but nationalist adventures in Crimea and clever references to past glories and the future expansionist promise of Novorossiya (New Russia) allows an insecure, nervous populace to forgive his growing authoritarianism.
Closer home, Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapakse stirred up Buddhist nationalist feeling to win a brutal war against the Tamils, restart the economic engine and sweep elections. It’s notable that the new nationalist movements and governments mostly rise in states with democratic structures.
The other common features: Whether the National Front in France or the BJP in India, they tap into economic uncertainty and political stagnation. In Greece, two mainstream parties have ruled the country over 40 years and overseen its descent into an economic quagmire. In the three years to 2012, Golden Dawn went from 1% of the vote to being the fifth-largest party in Parliament.
They utilise culture, symbols, slogans and religion to recall a perceived, golden age to fashion an updated national identity based on carefully selected icons. Putin’s inspiration is the Soviet and Tsarist era.
Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe reveres the World War 2 criminals honoured in the once-shunned Yasukuni shrine. Modi’s chosen icons are vedic Hinduism and Vallabhbhai Patel.
Like the BJP and the AKP, they hard-focus on economic revival after coming to power (although most Islamising states have gone the other way by obsessing about religion). They tend to be populist, even xenophobic, in their rhetoric but capitalist in their approach, encouraging investment from big companies, tycoons — many of whom become oligarchs — and foreign investors.
They express an often abusive hate of liberals and minorities. Just as the BJP mutes its feelings about Muslims, so do many European Right-wing parties about Jews — although Islam and Muslims are fair game.
The strongmen — and they are almost always men — involved with the new nationalism evoke an era of masculinity, traditional roles for women and an intolerance (except in western Europe) of homosexuality.
Television and social media are the tools of choice for the aggressive, insecure middle classes that propel the rise of the new Right and are adroitly used by parties that tap into the discontent and impatience.
China’s communist rulers, flush with economic success, have taken to threatening neighbours, egged on vociferously by the new middle-class on social media.
In Pakistan, growing middle-class support has legitimised the far Right. Modi’s rhetoric — and those flashing eyes — may have stirred India’s passions like never before in recent times but globally his rise is hardly unique.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.