Colombo, February 9: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly fought back tears when speaking about the devastation in Turkiye at a Bharatiya Janata Party meeting in New Delhi. The tragedy which has claimed 15,000 lives in Turkiye and Syria combined, reminded him about the havoc caused by the quake in Bhuj in his home State of Gujarat in 2001 when he was Chief Minister. India’s fulsome assistance in double quick time to quake-devastated Turkiye could help rebuild broken India-Turkiye ties.
On Turkiye’s side, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, in the recent past, watered down his stridently anti-Indian stand on the sensitive Kashmir issue. By doing so, Erdogan had removed the only hurdle in the way of friendly and fruitful bilateral relations.
Combined with recent changes in the geopolitical environment, the way is being cleared for a fresh look at India-Turkiye ties. A rapprochement appears to be on the cards.
Moving at lightning speed, India dispatched 50 personnel of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) accompanied by 60 Para Field Hospitals and staff. The airlifted cargo included a specially trained dog squad, medical supplies, drilling machines and other equipment. Undeterred by Pakistan’s refusal to give overflight rights, the Indian planes took a longer route to reach Turkiye. A grateful Turkiye embassy in Delhi tweeted: “Thank you India, for your support and solidarity.”
India and Turkiye had fallen out after President Erdogan, in his efforts to assume the leadership of the Islamic world in place of Saudi Arabia, had thrown his weight behind India’s rival, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, in the latter’s dispute with India over Kashmir.
Erdogan repeatedly used international forums including the UN, to berate India on the Kashmir issue and call for a settlement on the basis of a UN resolution that India considers both dated and untenable. Outside the UN, Erdogan even said that massacres of Muslims were widespread in India. “Massacres of Muslims. By who? Hindus,” he said with a rhetorical flourish.
Pakistan reciprocated by supporting Turkey on the Armenia-Azerbaijan war and its bid to form an Islamic forum as a rival to the Saudi-dominated Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). India, on the other hand, sided with Greece, Armenia and Cyprus in their dispute with Turkiye. India also accused Turkiye of funding NGOs to radicalize Indian Muslims. A Turkish NGO, Insan Hak ve Hurriyetleri ve Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), was suspected to have ties with the Popular Front of India (PFI), a radical Islamic organization with alleged terror links. Turkey allegedly encouraged radical Kashmiri youth to shift to Istanbul and Ankara. Reports said that Turkiye-made pistols were recovered from Pakistani infiltrators in Kashmir.
Modi was to visit Turkiye and Saudi Arabia in October 2019. He cancelled the visit to Turkiye but went to Saudi Arabia showing where India’s sympathies lay. In 2021, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar met the foreign minister of Cyprus, and called for adherence to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution on Cyprus, in a fitting riposte to Erdogan’s calls for a referendum in Kashmir.
As a result of such sparring, trade and economic cooperation between the two countries suffered. Writing EurAsian Times, Prakash Nanda says that India significantly reduced its imports from Turkey. Rubbing salt into the wound, India entered into a defense pact worth U$ 40 million with Armenia, to supply four indigenous SWATHI weapon-locating radars.
However, changes in the regional geopolitical scenario brought about some rethinking both in Ankara and New Delhi. Partly due to its economic difficulties (with 80% inflation) and partly due to changes in the regional geopolitical environment, Turkiye has been making up with the Arab World. It is shedding its hostility to its Islamic rival, Saudi Arabia. And like many in the Arab world, it is improving ties with Israel.
Given the parlous state of Pakistan’s economy, its problems with the Taliban, and the consequent loss of status in the world, Turkiye is no longer finding it necessary to uphold Pakistan’s cause in Kashmir. On the other contrary, it began to see merit in repairing ties with India, a growing country with which it could have fruitful economic ties.
This is the background for Erdogan’s leaving out any reference to the need for India to adhere to the UN resolution on Kashmir the last time he spoke on the Kashmir dispute in an international forum.
After his cordial meeting with Modi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand in September 2022, Erdogan did surprise India with a reference to Kashmir in his speech at UNGA. But Erdogan had toned down the script. He only said that it was “unfortunate that India and Pakistan hadn’t been able to establish peace 75 years after independence.” He hoped for a “fair and permanent peace” in Kashmir. Prakash Nanda saw in this mild reference, an indication of a dilution of Turkiye’s ties with Pakistan and the holding out of the olive branch to India.
India is now the Chair of the SCO and is to hold the SCO summit in 2023. India has already assumed the Presidency of G- 20. Its clout in the world went up when it took an independent stand on Ukraine. Turkiye is a dialogue partner in the SCO and hopes to be a member. Continued anti-India posture would be inappropriate and counterproductive in the emerging scenario.
The gains of India-Turkiye cooperation would be many. Despite political differences with Erdogan, a consortium of Turkey’s top five leading shipyards, TAIS, got the contract for naval shipbuilding worth US $2.3 billion with transfer technology. The Turkiye company, Savronik, completed a defense ministry project to build a tunnel in the Leh-Manali highway. Indian businesses have an increasing footprint in Turkiye.
In this context the speech of Turkiye’s Deputy Trade Minister Rıza Tuna Turagay at a function to celebrate India’s 74th Republic Day in Ankara is significant. “I firmly believe that Turkiye and India have a very high potential for bilateral cooperation in various areas such as trade, investment, tourism and technology. The bilateral trade volume rose from US$ 5.7 billion in 2020 to US$ 12.3 billion in 2022. The two countries have a reciprocal investment worth approximately US$ 375 million,” Turagay said.
In his speech, the Indian envoy, Virender Paul, stated: “We have possibilities to develop much broader bilateral relations through mutual understanding. We look forward to realizing our full potential together as strong partners in the 21st century.”
It is suggested that India and Turkiye sign a free trade agreement or a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Another suggestion being made is that Turkey could include India in the “Asia Anew Initiative,” which extends economic and trade ties with Turkey’s Asian partners, including ASEAN.
India is hoping that Turkiye will holistically reassess its ties with India and actively pursue a forward policy without messing it up by taking up issues which do not accord with its core interests in an increasingly interlinked world. Just as Turkiye does not comment on the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China, it should not talk about the Kashmir issue or the issue of Muslims in general in India. Reciprocally, India should not exploit or even comment upon, issues of Turkiye’s interest such as those relating to Cyprus, Armenia and Greece.
Writing for the Anadolu News Agency on September 21, 2022, Dr. Duygu Cagla Bayram reminded India that in the past, Turkiye had supported India’s observer status at the OIC; its participation in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG); and its membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Like India, Turkiye has been a firm believer in the expansion of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) As Erdogan said; “The world is bigger than five.”