Of missed opportunities, rigid stances
India and Turkey missed an opportunity to consolidate and expand their bilateral ties politically during the visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to India earlier this month, although they seemed to converge on the need to build a stronger economic relationship.
Erdogan, who during his day-long visit to New Delhi earlier this month held talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, gave enough indication that while he was ready to enhance trade and commerce ties with India, he was not willing to dilute his position on Kashmir supporting Pakistan, Turkey's close ally in this part of the world.
In fact, he had set the agenda for his talks with the Prime Minister when in an interview to an Indian TV channel on the eve of his visit, he advocated for "multilateral negotiations" to resolve the Kashmir issue, and offered himself as an intermediary with Pakistan. He also said that Turkey would like to see both India and Pakistan in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
While Turkey insists on a criteria-based approach—much like China –it is one of the few countries to draw a parallel between India and Pakistan's NSG applications.
His remarks in support of India's bid to the permanent membership of the UN Security Council also came with a rider on other countries being included.
"The UN Security Council should be reformed. India has a population of 1.3 billion people, and yet it is not part of the Security Council. Do you think this is a healthy system? A total of 1.7 billion people live in the Islamic world, but they are not being represented at the Security Council," he said after receiving the degree of Doctor of Letters by Jamia Millia Islamia.
Notably, after his talks with the Prime Minister the Turkish leader condemned the Naxal attack on CRPF personnel in Sukma (Chhattisgarh) on April 24 and "terrorism" but did not talk about terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
It is not that Erdogan is not aware of India's position that the Kashmir issue has to be resolved bilaterally with Pakistan and that it is against any third party intervention in the dispute. As such, the Turkish President's statement came as a 'surprise' with experts observing that even in the past there had been numerous high-level visits from Turkey but never has any Turkish leader spoken so explicitly about the Kashmir issue during or before a visit to India.
It may be mentioned here that the late Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and his then Turkish counterpart Turgut Ozal had decided to maintain a pause on Cyprus and Kashmir issues to de-hyphenate their bilateral relations from these two issues.
It seems Erdogan was upset because of India's decisions to host Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades and Vice President M Hamid Ansari to Armenia just ahead of his visit to New Delhi.
Turkey does not share diplomatic ties with the two countries. Turkish-dominated Northern Cyprus is under Turkey's occupation since 1974.
Relations between Turkey and Armenia are stuck because of the Armenian genocide. Between 1915 and 1917, the then Ottoman government allegedly exterminated 1.5 million Armenians.
Although India has described the decisions as "coincidence", some analysts view this as a balancing act by New Delhi.
According to them, the foreign policy of the government vis a vis Islamic countries appears to be that of maintaining a balance. This is evident from the fact that when Prime Minister Modi visited Iran also subsequently went to Saudi Arabia. The Palestinian President is likely to visit India before the Prime Minister's proposed visit to Israel. If it is indeed so, India needs to review this policy.
However, given Turkey's longstanding ties with Pakistan, it may be too much to expect a deepening relationship with India.
Although relations between the two countries have been difficult because of their divergent positions on terrorism and the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, the two seemed to be eager to build a strong economic relationship, committing themselves to increasing bilateral trade to $10 billion by 2020 from the current $6.5 billion.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal.)