How India botched up with Erdogan’s visit?


M. K. Bhadrakumar |

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs schedules high-level visits by foreign dignitaries on the basis of clear-cut diplomatic objectives. A visit for visit’s sake is seldom the case. In all respects, Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s visit should have been carefully planned. Yet, how come we botched it up?

Turkey: An important country for India

Turkey is an important regional power, a member of the G-20, a country with a flourishing economy and dynamic business culture that approximates far closer to the OECD standards than India in development, an ancient country with a profound history and an influential voice in the ‘Muslim world’.

Most important, Turkey’s ‘Ostpolitik’ under Erdogan’s leadership is of interest, especially its close ties with Pakistan, China and Russia, and, secondly, Turkey’s stance at least in three directions impacts India’s vital concerns – namely, its stance on India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, India’s quest for permanent membership of the UN Security Council and, of course, on the Kashmir issue (where it has had a stated position that has been supportive of Pakistan.)

Read more: Is India eyeing to become a new power in Asia-Pacific?

Erdogan: A powerful leader

Indeed, Erdogan himself is a powerful leader who has consistently enjoyed 50% support in democratic elections. He is not an easy man to handle – given to outspokenness and whimsicality at times. But he is a decisive leader who takes a personal interest in promoting Turkey’s economic and business ties with foreign countries and there is much-untapped potential for trade and investment between Turkey and India.

The Turks are a very proud people. The point is, they have a proud history. Turkey never became a colony of western powers, nor was it conquered, ransacked, and subjugated by successive foreign armies. India’s medieval rulers sought protection from Turkey.

What stands out today are Erdogan’s controversial remarks as he set out for India on the explosive situation in J&K, his offer to mediate in the Kashmir dispute, his concern over the situation surrounding the Indian Muslims, his acknowledgement of warm feelings toward Pakistan and its prime minister, his rejection of the India’s ‘containment’ strategy toward Pakistan, his support for Pakistan’s NSG membership alongside India’s, and his repudiation of our attempts to draw parallels between Turkey’s Kurdish problem and India’s Kashmir problem as similar manifestations of ‘terrorism’.

Why did he say such harsh things? The answer is not far to seek. The fact of the matter is that Erdogan paid India back in their own coin. India asked for trouble with the injudicious scheduling of the state visit by the President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades just ahead of Erdogan’s. No matter what we say, Turks (or the international community) would only have perceived it as a deliberate slight to Erdogan. Couldn’t the two visits be a little spaced out?

Turkey-Cyprus ties are adversarial ever since the Turkish army marched into Cyprus in 1974 to carve out an entity in the north of the island. The Cyprus question is as complicated as our Kashmir problem – where religion, ethnicity, national identity and geopolitics get hopelessly intertwined. Turkey’s stance on Kashmir became ‘pro-Pakistan’ in a pronounced way following (non-aligned) India’s robust support for (non-aligned) Cyprus against the Turkish invasion and occupation in 1974. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan happened to be one of the handfuls of countries that supported Northern Cyprus.

Nonetheless, Turkey’s antipathy toward India mellowed over time and its militant secularism put limits on its friendship with Pakistan. When Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit accepted PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s invitation to visit India in 2001, he spurned an invitation from General Pervez Musharraf to have at the very least a stopover in Pakistan while overflying that country.

The scheduling of Anastasiades’ visit just before Erdogan’s needlessly opened old wounds. And we have further compounded the mess-up by reacting to Erdogan’s remarks (recorded in Ankara on Thursday) by inserting into PM Modi’s press statement (in Delhi on Friday) while greeting Anastasiades a pointed reference to 1974.

Read more: Chabahar – Some Indian myths and the reality

“In modern times, our relationship goes back to the pre-independence era, when our founding fathers supported the freedom struggle of Cyprus. And Cyprus, too, has always reciprocated with its warmth and friendship. India has always stood by Cyprus on all crucial issues. In 1974, India took a firm stand in support of the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the Republic of Cyprus. India has contributed personnel to the UN Peace Keeping Force in Cyprus… I am aware of your initiative for resolving the Cyprus issue. You have led from the front in trying to bring a new era of peace, development, and security. Not just for Cyprus, but for the whole region. We wish you every success in your efforts.”

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”.  This piece was first published in Indian Punchline.


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