The long arc to Ankara

 Erdogan,Turkey

Turkish President Erdogan at Rashtrapati Bhavan

Narendra Modi/Facebook

It was a visit which had been in the making for quite some time. But when it eventually happened, few in India and abroad took note of it, with the result that nothing much changed as a consequence.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in India earlier this week and tried to give a boost to sagging ties between Delhi and Ankara. His visit came against the backdrop of his narrow win in a referendum on April 16 which gave him sweeping executive powers as President giving rise to fears about a lack of adequate safeguards for democratic rights in Turkey. Given his growing regional and global isolation as he seems intent on dismantling the secular traditions of Turkey, Mr. Erdoğan has been trying use Islamism to shore up his credibility.

His visit to India was also informed by this larger agenda. Ahead of his trip, he had suggested a “multilateral dialogue” on Kashmir, even offering to mediate between India and Pakistan. “We should not allow more casualties to occur. By having a multi-lateral dialogue, (in which) we can be involved, we can seek ways to settle the issue once and for all,” he argued.

Line on Kashmir

He said India and Pakistan are both friends of Turkey and that he wanted to help strengthen the dialogue process. But if Mr. Erdoğan’s intent was to improve Indo-Turkish ties then this was clearly a non-judicious start given that India has consistently ruled out third party mediation on Kashmir. New Delhi was categorical in asserting that “the issue of Kashmir is essentially an issue of terrorism,” and that its disputes with Pakistan must be settled bilaterally.

Not that this was a surprise as Mr. Erdoğan has been a vocal supporter of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s position on Kashmir. During his visit too, the only India-related terrorism he referred to was the threat from Naxalism. Though he suggested that India and Turkey needed to “work as one to disrupt the terrorist networks and their financing and put a stop to cross-border movement of terrorists”, he remained unwilling to acknowledge the cross-border nature of the terror threat that India faces. On India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Turkish stance has been to push for Pakistan’s case along with India’s.

Mr. Erdoğan has recognised that India-Turkey relations are “significantly behind” their potential and that the two nations need to work together for a fair world. Towards that end he was willing to support India’s bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, even as he called for major institutional reforms. But even here the story is complicated as Turkey is a member of the group called Uniting for Consensus which opposes expansion of permanent membership in the Security Council. And this group includes Pakistan.

A tough balancing act

Mr. Erdoğan clearly wanted to keep the focus on economic and trade ties as he was accompanied by a large business delegation. At a time when Europe is not so welcoming to Turkey, new markets in Asia are needed. India and Turkey have decided to increase their bilateral trade from $6.4 billion to $10 billion by 2020. The two nations are also exploring cooperation in areas such as construction, infrastructure development, renewable energy, and tourism.

What was interesting was not the outcome of Mr. Erdoğan’s visit, which was underwhelming as expected, but how India managed this visit. Not only did India host Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades just before Mr. Erdoğan’s arrival but Vice President Hamid Ansari also recently visited Armenia, a country which accuses Turkey of having killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians during World War I. Turkey does not recognise Cyprus, the northern part of which is under Turkish occupation since 1974. In fact, the Cypriot President used his visit to ask New Delhi to tell Turkey that the status quo on the territorial dispute on his island nation is unacceptable.

As a major regional power in West Asia, Turkey cannot be ignored by India. But New Delhi is no longer content to allow Ankara to define the contours of this relationship. It is signalling that if Turkey wants to reach out to India, then Indian sensitivities on core issues have to be respected. Otherwise, India too is not short of options.

This commentary was published in The Hindu

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Harsh V. Pant