Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking stronger ties with the world’s largest democracy, India, at a time when he is at odds with most of the western democratic countries. Most notably, during his two-day visit to India, he met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and attended a special convocation at one of Delhi’s prestigious universities, Jamia Millia Islamia, where he was conferred with an honorary doctorate.
Before Erdogan’s arrival in New Delhi, some of his surrogates were already in the town speaking at different events about how India and Turkey as two “great democracies” can and should forge a mutually beneficial relationship. The idea is good at its face value. But there are serious differences and problems that cast a shadow at any potential alliance between India and Turkey.
First and foremost, no matter how hard Erdogan and his team try to convince Modi that their relationship with India is independent of their relationship with Pakistan, it is not really a fact.
Not only the families of Turkey’s president Erdogan and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif share personal bonds, the state ideology in both these countries is more or less the same.
The once staunchly secular state, Turkey, has now been turned into a system where all political moves of the regime are endorsed by a cohort of financially and morally corrupt religious leaders - which is typically what happens in theocratic countries.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has always been a theocracy. Furthermore, both these states’ current politics is deeply rooted in political Islam.
In terms of people-to-people connect between India and Turkey, and Pakistan and Turkey, Pakistan outnumbers India with a huge margin. Not to suggest that the friendship between Turkish and Pakistani people is a threat to India, but the fact that not many Indian and Turkish people know each other leads to a situation where stereotyping and having prejudice about one another is rampant.
In Turkey, where all Pakistanis would be treated as “brothers”, most Indians would usually be mocked as “cow-worshippers”.
Despite Erdogan’s preposterous claim that under his leadership Turkey’s democracy has strengthened over the years, it can hardly be denied that it is under unprecedented crisis. Photo: Reuters
This doesn’t mean that the Turkish people are detestable - on the contrary, they are very hospitable and kind. But due to little people-to-people connect, they are hardly aware of India’s diversity and plurality.
Given the strong personal bonds between the leaders, deep-rooted ideological similarity between the states and the people-to-people connect, Pakistan’s leverage over Turkey is far more than that of India’s.
In such a situation, Turkey’s relationship with India cannot be independent of its ties to Pakistan - and therefore expecting Turkey not to side with Pakistan on issues where there is a dispute between India and Pakistan would be naïve.
The Kashmir issue and India’s desired membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) are the two most obvious issues where Turkey stands firmly behind Pakistan.
Not long ago, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his government fully supports Pakistan’s position on Jammu and Kashmir, and he also backed Islamabad’s demand to send an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) delegation to the Kashmir Valley to investigate the alleged human rights violations there.
On India’s bid to become a member of the NSG, Turkey opposed India last year because Pakistan’s application was not being considered.
Secondly, despite Erdogan’s preposterous claim that under his leadership Turkey’s democracy has strengthened over the years, it can hardly be denied that it is under unprecedented crisis. With the recently concluded constitutional referendum - which Erdogan won controversially - the country is closer to one-man rule.
In the aftermath of the attempted coup of July 15, 2016, at least 1,34,194 officials, teachers, bureaucrats and academics have been sacked from state institutions; 1,00,155 people have been detained; 2,099 educational institutions have been shut down; 7,317 academics have lost their jobs; and 4,317 judges and prosecutors have been dismissed. By all standards, it is a crackdown of an alarming proportion.
Indian democracy, with all its flaws, fares much better than the Turkish democracy. India is slowly asserting itself on the global stage as a country which takes pride in its democracy, demography and demand.
If India really wants to become a significant global player in the democratic world, it must not ignore the gross human rights violations going on in countries like Turkey - particularly because the scale at which rights violations have taken place there, many Indians have also been badly affected.
A number of Indian students who were studying in some of the 15 universities that have been shut down in the wake of the coup attempt had to return home without completing their education. Some Indian academics who were employed at these universities became jobless and their bank accounts were blocked by the Turkish authorities for months.
It’s no surprise that due to such serious problems with fundamental rights in his country, Erdogan is at odds with the western democratic countries. As he tries to discover new friends in India, the Indian leadership should note that neither his ties with Pakistan will let him become a true friend of India nor is it in India’s larger interest to befriend an internationally isolated authoritarian leader.