India-Turkey relations: Turkish delight turned sour

Opening a new page in India-Turkey relations clearly needs to wait for better times

 Erdogan, Turkey, Turkish, Modi

Turkish President Erdogan with PM Modi

Source: Narendra Modi/Facebook

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s state visit to India last week was expected to open a new page in bilateral relations, which have traditionally alternated between formal and lukewarm, at best. The reason is simple. On issues of mutual concern, both countries have displayed a lack of sensitivity.

Turkey’s position on Kashmir has traditionally reflected its proximity to Pakistan, guided by the links between the two military establishments. Both countries were part of the anti-Communist military alliance, the Baghdad Pact (later Central Treaty Organisation or CENTO), and in both generals had wielded political power. Membership of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has been another abiding link between the two countries. On the issue of UN Security Council (UNSC) expansion, Turkey and Pakistan are part of the Uniting for Consensus group which opposes the idea of adding new permanent members, proposing instead a doubling of the non-permanent category to make the UNSC more representative.

More recently, on India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Turkey supported the Chinese idea of a criteria-based approach for non-Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) member states, intended to accommodate Pakistan.

A personal chemistry

Against this negative backdrop is the personal relationship between Mr. Erdoğan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi developed during the last two years on the margins of G-20 summits. Mr. Erdoğan’s efforts to shift Turkish foreign policy away from its Western orientation had created space for a growing relationship with India which Mr. Modi was keen to exploit.

There are similarities between the two leaders which may have drawn them together. Amitav Ghosh wrote about their ‘Parallel Journeys’, their difficult economic circumstances (Mr. Modi had run a tea stall at the railway station while Mr. Erdoğan sold lemonade at a street corner), the struggle to rise to the top in their respective political parties, a lasting and deep religiosity and exceptional communication skills. According to Mr. Ghosh, Mr. Modi’s electoral victory in 2014 was reminiscent of Mr. Erdoğan becoming Prime Minister when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won in 2002; in both cases, their parties associated with religious organisations had overturned long standing ‘secular-nationalist elites’.

In his slim volume A Question of Order – India, Turkey and the Return of Strongmen, published earlier this year, describing India and Turkey as two of the world’s largest multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracies in Asia, Basharat Peer identifies “religion and secularism as their common and dominant faultlines”. Their founding fathers (Ataturk and Nehru) were both charismatic and sought to turn their countries towards western modernity on the basis of free and fair elections and religious freedoms. The economic parallels are less persuasive but Mr. Peer weaves the political threads together in terms of the “strongmen” persona of today’s leaders — their promises of reviving national pride and restoring greatness, harnessing militant nationalism, impatience with criticism and civil society, and their personal charismatic appeal. Interestingly, Mr. Modi would like to do away with ‘triple talaq’ in order to give greater rights to Muslim women while Mr. Erdoğan reintroduced the women’s headscarf, overturning the ban that had been introduced by Ataturk decades earlier!

Stars not aligned

Notwithstanding the personal chemistry between the two leaders, the legacy of mutual insensitivity proved too difficult to overcome. The stars were not aligned. Vice President Ansari’s visit to Armenia and Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades visiting India in the week preceding President Erdoğan’s arrival were hardly good omens. Mr. Erdoğan too reverted to the pro-Pakistan default position on Kashmir and the NSG. He acknowledged that while India with 1.3 billion people needed to have its place in the UNSC, he added that the 1.7 billion Muslims also needed to be present.

Both sides sought to emphasise the potential for greater economic cooperation. However, there are clear limits here, imposed by existing agreements. Half of Turkey’s $350 billion foreign trade is with Europe. Our bilateral trade which stands at $6 billion, and is expected to grow to $10 billion by 2020, can hardly become a major driver.

Troubling policy choices

In coming years, Mr. Erdoğan has his hands full in dealing with the forces unleashed by his policies in the region and domestically. A decade ago, Turkey had a booming economy, Mr. Erdoğan had clipped the wings of the army, Turkey appeared a moderate and progressive Islamic state, and prospects for EU membership were bright. Then came the Arab Spring and Turkish policy adopted a blend of pan-Islamism and neo-Ottomanism. Elections in the aftermath of the Arab Spring were expected to bring in the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement with which AKP was closely aligned. But by 2013, two problems had emerged. President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt had been removed and the army was back in power in Cairo with the tacit understanding of both the West and Saudi Arabia, and Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad’s regime had proven to be far more resilient than anticipated.

The jihadi highway that Mr. Erdoğan opened up on the Turkey-Syria border for radicalised Europeans, Central Asians, Afghans, Arabs and Africans to enter Syria created a backlash. While the Russians were targeting the Islamic State (IS) in Syria to prop up the Assad regime, the U.S. was using its Turkish airbases for strikes against the IS and increasingly relying on the Syrian Kurds for ground operations. Relations nosedived after the shooting down of a Russian Su-24 killing the pilot. Six months later, Mr. Erdoğan had to apologise to Russia to get sanctions lifted. Meanwhile, Turkish Kurds (the outlawed PKK) linked up with their Syrian counterparts, the PYD and its militant wing YPG, spurring Kurdish nationalism as the PYD called for a Rojava (homeland). During 2016, Turkey suffered more than 200 terrorist attacks, attributed to the IS and the Kurds, killing more than 300 persons.

Having repaired relations with Russia, Mr. Erdoğan is eager to repair relations with the U.S. which had frayed during the Obama years. He was quick to compliment U.S. President Donald Trump for the early April Tomahawk missile strikes on the Shayrat air base in Syria, calculating correctly that he could manage the fallout of this with Russia. Mr. Trump reciprocated by telephoning him to congratulate him on his successful referendum in April. This has been followed up with an invitation to the White House on May 16-17.

Turkey is keen to join in the assault on the IS stronghold of Raqqa to ensure that the YPG is kept under check but the Syrians oppose a role for Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkish soldiers have occupied al-Bab in northern Syria, beating the YPG to it. The idea of a contiguous Kurdish enclave on its southern border is anathema for Turkey. It has become a strong votary of maintaining Syrian territorial integrity even as Russia and the U.S. are talking about autonomous areas under different groups, separated by buffer zones to ensure peace.

Exploiting a failed coup

Even as Mr. Erdoğan copes with foreign policy challenges, he demonstrated his political agility by exploiting last July’s failed coup to round up all potential opponents prior to the April referendum. It is estimated that about 120,000 government employees have been suspended or dismissed, primarily from the judiciary and the education branches, suspected of being Gülen sympathisers. In addition, 7,500 soldiers and officers including over a hundred with the rank of a brigadier and above, and over 10,000 police cadres have been sacked. More than a dozen colleges and universities and a thousand schools are closed; licences of 24 radio and TV channels have been revoked and over a hundred journalists have been arrested.

With all this, Mr. Erdoğan’s referendum, which proposes 18 amendments to transform Turkey into a highly centralised presidential government, was passed with a slim majority of 51.4% versus 48.6%. The proposed changes permit Mr. Erdoğan to get two terms of five years each after the 2019 elections, appoint at will vice-presidents and cabinet members and 12 out of 15 supreme court judges, abolish the post of prime minister, provides for simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections and coterminous tenures, enlarges the parliament to 600 seats while reducing the minimum age of candidacy for parliament to 18 years.

This is an ambitious agenda, even for a highly committed and driven leader like Mr. Erdoğan and will keep him busy for the next two years. Opening a new page in India-Turkey relations clearly needs to wait for better times.

This commentary originally appeared in The Hindu.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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