Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Delhi on April 30, just after victory in a national referendum that confers fresh powers upon a leader who is already being described as “sultan” or “caliph” in his country.
By a narrow margin of just over 51 percent, the Turkish people opted for a presidential form of government that will come into effect in November 2019.
For some time now, some in the international media have seen Erdogan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as kindred spirits.
Both had their baptism in religion-based politics, Modi in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Erdogan in the now-banned Islamist party, Refah Partisi or Welfare Party.
Both expressed commitment to multi-faceted national development, while assiduously promoting a “strongman” image, Erdogan against Israel and Modi against Pakistan.
On the eve of his departure for India, in a TV interview, Erdogan firmly rejected any parallel between the Kurdish and Kashmir issues, pointing out that the Kurdish issue was a domestic matter, while the Kashmir issue involved the claims of two sovereign states.
Erdogan then added: “We shouldn’t allow more casualties to occur (in Jammu and Kashmir). And by strengthening multilateral dialogues, we can be involved. And through the multilateral dialogues, we have to seek out ways to settle this question once and for all, which will provide benefits to both countries.”
This reference to “multilateral dialogues” was read in India as proposing a multi-party involvement in the discussion process.
This is a red rag for India, which sees the Kashmir issue as a bilateral matter, one between itself and Pakistan.
Erdogan then compounded his insensitivity with the following remarks: “My dear friend, Mr. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, is an individual with whom I have been discussing these issues at length and I know that he is a man of good intention. ... So, if we keep the dialogue channels open, we can settle this question once and for all.”
As expected, the references to “multilateral dialogues” and “my dear friend ... Nawaz Sharif” became the anchors on which the Indian media founded the rest of the president’s visit, highlighting Turkey’s deep and historic ties with Pakistan and seeing a difference in Erdogan’s approach to the two countries on every issue on which he made a comment.
Thus, though Erdogan asserted that he stood in “full solidarity” with India against all forms of terrorism, Indian commentators noted that, while he specifically condemned the Naxalite attack on CRPF jawans at Sukhma, he made no reference to cross-border terrorist attacks on India from Pakistan, nor did he condemn the mutilation of two Indian soldiers at the Indo-Pak border that took place during his visit.
Again, regarding membership in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, Erdogan insisted that Indian and Pakistani membership be considered together.
His main agenda was economic, and he got full support from the Indian government and the corporate sector.
It was left to Prime Minister Modi to bring out Pakistan’s role in cross-border terrorist by pointing out: “The nations of the world … need to work as one to disrupt the terrorist networks and their financing and put a stop to cross-border movement of terrorists.”
The Indian official spokesman said it had been clearly conveyed to Erdogan that “Kashmir is an integral part of India” and that “in Kashmir, we have been victims of cross-border and state-sponsored terrorism.”
The bilateral vibes were much better on economic issues.
Erdogan was accompanied by a 150-strong business delegation and spent the first day of his visit at the India-Turkey Business Summit, presided over by the leaders of the two countries, which agreed to increase bilateral trade from the present $6.5 billion to $10 billion by 2020.
The two sides also agreed that cooperation in the fields of IT, pharmaceuticals, health and tourism is beneficial to the growth of bilateral trade.
The Turkish side said it had the ability to meet India’s infrastructure requirements and the development of smart cities.
Some Indian media outlets were scathing in their response to what they saw as the president’s insensitivities. One writer referred to Erdogan as “a repressive, paranoid autocrat (who) has cemented his position through a dubious referendum.”
The national daily Hindustan Times was particularly incensed by the president’s references to Kashmir and firmly advised him “to mind his manners — and his business — on matters relating to India and Pakistan.”
Erdogan made his Kashmir-related remarks with full knowledge that they were contrary to India’s position of several decades.
He was clearly brandishing his Islamist credentials in this regard, brushing aside India’s concerns by saying, in his address at Jamia Millia Islamia, that even friendly countries do not agree with each other on every issue.
His main agenda in India was economic and here he got full support from the Indian government and the corporate sector.
His core political ties lie with China, Russia and the Central Asian Republics, and they remain solid. Hence, Erdogan is not likely to be daunted by Western criticism of his rule. He frequently lambasts the latter for its ignorance, prejudice and Islamophobia.
He is comforted by the fact that he is a member of an exclusive club of authoritarian heads of states, made up of the rulers of China, Russia, the US and India, among others, who value him for his tough, no-nonsense approach to domestic and regional challenges.
• Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia.