Losing a nation, in seven acts

A Turkish journalist’s recent book on her country’s descent into ‘dictatorship’ has a troubling message for India

Are we losing our country? This is the question that Ece Temelkuran, a Turkish journalist and writer, suggests that we should be asking ourselves. In her recent book, How to Lose a Country , she describes how her homeland was stolen from her by what she considers the dictatorship of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Subtitled “The seven steps from democracy to dictatorship”, the book outlines a saptapadi that Indians have become intimately familiar with over the past six years. In fact, Ms. Temelkuran’s main point is that this is now a global trend.

The story begins with the creation of a movement that claims to be of and for the “real people”, the authentic owners of the nation unjustly marginalised in the past by assorted conspiracies. This is followed by an assault on rationality and on language, where new meanings are thrust upon old terms and argument is replaced by aggressive slogans. The third step is a shedding of all shame and decency on the part of leaders, who then teach their followers to do so as well, all in the name of an authentic indigeneity.

After this comes the dismantling, or co-option, of all the institutions that are intended to act as checks and balances on executive power, including the judiciary, the media and the Constitution. The fifth step is the designing of new citizens, who will be pre-calibrated to the new normalcy that has been speedily established, shrugging off the weight of history. The sixth step is the reduction of all liberal and secular thinking persons to a stage of irrelevance and despair where they can only “laugh at the horror” that their country has become. The seventh and last step, of course, is when the new rulers build their own country, having crushed all possible sources of resistance to their agendas.

How the liberals react

Ms. Temelkuran emphasises that the early steps in this journey are marked by confident expectations of the liberal establishment that the disturbances are temporary, and the built-in safeguards in the system will take care of the threats. But this confidence soon gives way to helpless disbelief expressed in incredulous exclamations: “They can’t do this!”, “How did they get away with that!”, and so on.

Ms. Temelkuran persuasively argues that, in the last two decades, this sequence has been repeated in countries as different from each other as Hungary, Brazil, the United States and Turkey (to name a few), and it is currently under way in the United Kingdom.

India finds no mention in Ms. Temelkuran’s book, which is mainly addressing Anglo Americans and Europeans. But the resemblance to our recent history is uncanny. We can argue about the exact sequence, and about the relative importance or distinctiveness of this or that step, but the overall trend is striking in its similarity. Oddly enough, this book is useful precisely because it is saying nothing new, nothing that we do not already know. It is merely holding out a mirror, and there is something helpful about seeing our own experiences reflected back to us as part of a larger phenomenon. This relativising of what we are accustomed to thinking of as uniquely Indian draws attention to three features of our recent history that we may otherwise neglect.

The first is that this journey towards an authoritarian communalism is flagged off by neoliberalism and the values it promotes. This may sound disappointingly formulaic, part of the same tired left-wing rant that most people have stopped hearing long ago. But think about it. Today, large sections of our population are convinced that some minorities ought to be legally deprived of citizenship. Could we have arrived at this point if neoliberalism had not discredited social welfare as an idea? Whatever its faults, welfarism did assume that citizens are connected to each other not only by communitarian but also by civic-national ties. Neoliberalism cut the ties that connected individuals to each other and to the state, thereby undermining our secular-social bonds. Or, to take an opposite example, think about why neoliberalism seems self-evidently opposed to things like reservation.

The second feature on which a lot has been said already is the unique role of the media in India. As the world has been repeatedly told, India has more than 400 news channels that broadcast news 24X7, far more than any other country on earth. But what is remarkable here is not so much the giant medium, but the invisible, yet incredibly effective, work that has gone into creating an audience that is primed for the message before it even arrives. The stunning swiftness and reach of the new social media are often credited with — or blamed for — the spread of bigotry. This is unfair, for most of that credit belongs to those who tutored the addressees to receive the message without the slightest trace of scepticism. This is no mean achievement in a country where, until yesterday, people prided themselves on their scepticism and wore their cynicism on their sleeves. The same suspicious lot are now eager consumers of the most crudely concocted fake news and alternative facts.

A fundamental disconnect

The final feature concerns the composition and positioning of the opinion-making classes, or of intellectuals in the broad sense. There are two related but distinct aspects to this. The first is the degree to which a left-of-centre perspective has monopolised the more formal and institutional parts of the intellectual world. This has meant that, taken as a whole, our intellectual class was never really outside the sphere of state power, but very much an insider. This is in spite of the sharp disagreements and antipathies that may have separated specific persons or groups from particular political parties or leaders. In fact, even during the Emergency, when a large number of politically active persons including some intellectuals was actually imprisoned, there was never a fundamental disconnect between the corridors of power and the opinion makers. Today, we have a clear split — a major section of the media and many bureaucrats, artists, performers and other such public persons are completely identified with the power centre to the extent that they have no autonomous identity left. On the other side of the divide is that segment of the intellectual class that is completely cut off from the power centre and has been made its target. This latter segment is struggling to come to terms with its unprecedented, total and aggressive exclusion from the power centre.

The other aspect is the relative scarcity of right-wing intellectuals. This ought to be a matter of concern for liberals and leftists because it denies those in power the benefits of moderation and refinement in the pursuit of their agendas. It also ensures that the politics of resentment plays out in extreme ways that damage institutions and cause irreparable harm to the intellectual ecosystem.

But the immediate message conveyed by How to Lose a Country is that it is imperative to act at once, before the saat phera s are over, and we are bound over to an authoritarian regime.

Satish Deshpande teaches Sociology at Delhi University. Views are personal

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