Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policy of cultivating Turkey as an important pillar in his ambitious policy for the Islamic world and West Asia generally could materialize, the visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threw a spanner into the works. As a curtain raiser, he surprised the Indian government not only by bringing up the ticklish issue of Kashmir and the need for “a multilateral dialogue” to resolve the long standing dispute, but personally expressed a desire to broker a deal between Modi and his “dear Friend” Nawaz Sharif. Erdogan’s tactless, “in-your-face”, shocker reduced the extended conversation the Indian Prime Minister had planned to have with the visitor, to a strained iteration by the former of the Indian position that Kashmir was a domestic matter not open to outside mediation.
This episode raises the troubling matter about the preparations for Erdogan’s trip. Why was it so badly managed by Foreign Secretary K. Jaishankar and the Ministry of External Affairs that the Indian government had not an inkling of what was in the Turkish leader’s mind regarding Kashmir and how he would publicly express his views? This development was all the more galling because state visits are minutely scripted affairs in which nothing is left to chance and very little said by the principals that is unexpected. If the Foreign Office had no clue about what was in the offing, naturally there was nothing the MEA could have done diplomatically to preempt and divert the Turk from having his say and roiling the situation.
Perhaps, the Turkish Embassy in Delhi failed to alert their President to India’s sensitivities on the Kashmir issue, or Ankara decided to go ahead and be disruptive anyway, and risk the fallout. In the event, it duly turned into a diplomatic disaster. Erdogan’s getting back on script — extolling the similarities in Indian and Turkish cultures and restating Ankara’s support for India’s permanent membership to the UN Security Council — did not, however, retrieve the situation. In his “one on one” with the visitor, an apparently unsettled Modi, confused about whether to push his agenda at all, sputtered on about the enormous potential for Indo-Turkish trade and economic intercourse, after he had, one assumes, desultorily, stated India’s policy of resolving the Kashmir dispute bilaterally with Pakistan.
Had he the presence of mind, and proper briefing by MEA for just such contingency (which should have been anticipated; after all Turkey has regularly voted in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation against India on the Kashmir issue) Modi could have stopped Erdogan in full flow by not so delicately raising the issue of “independent” Kurdistan carved from the Kurdish majority areas across three countries – Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, and flummoxed the Turkish President in return. Ankara, after all, has always dealt savagely with the freedom-seeking Kurds, refusing in recent times to fall in with Washington and treat the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, as the most effective force in the field against the Bashir al-Assad regime in Syria, which Turkey opposes.
Erdogan’s motivation to be peace-maker in the subcontinent was possibly sparked by the US Ambassador to the United Nations, the Indian origin Nikky Haley. In trying to make an international splash as the new chairman of the Security Council, the newly appointed Haley stressed America’s right as global do-gooder to intervene in far-off disputes. “It’s absolutely right that this administration is concerned about the relationship between India and Pakistan and very much wants to see how we de-escalate any sort of conflict going forward,” Haley said on April 5. “So I would expect that the administration is going to be in talks and try and find its place to be a part of that and we don’t think we should wait till something happens.” It was a fairly straight forward way of prospectively legitimating any intervention the US President Donald J Trump may undertake.
Hard to see though why Erdogan believed he had a chance at getting into the Kashmir peacemaking business when the US, with much greater leverage and reach in both India and Pakistan, has repeatedly failed. Whatever he thought were his chances, what is certain from the run of events is that Erdogan was determined to bring Kashmir into play. And, to evince at least some positive reaction in the region to his proposal, it is likely Ankara, while keeping the enunciation by Erdogan of a possible Turkish role secret from Indian government interlocuters in the run-up to the visit, had informed Pakistan Prime Minister Sharif about it. It is revealing that Sartaj Aziz, the foreign affairs adviser to Nawaz Sharif, rather than the usual Pakistani spiel, welcomed the Turkish leader’s initiative by picking up on the concern Erdogan voiced for human rights violations and mounting casualties in Kashmir to justify a multilateral approach that Islamabad has always sought even as India’s call for bilateral dialogue was slammed by him as “no longer credible”.
The still larger question that that has loomed over the Kashmir dispute for a long time is why even states friendly to India, rather than taking Delhi’s protestations seriously, assume the dispute is ripe for their beneficial intervention? Because of two reasons: Delhi’s inability by whatever means to contain the unrest in the Srinagar Valley and the spiraling of violence, which makes India vulnerable to international pressure. And, secondly, the fear that ultimately this local turmoil, if unchecked, could in slow stages graduate to cross-border hostilities with Pakistan and – this is the “Flashpoint” thesis that is the favourite of Western thinktanks and governments alike – escalate into nuclear war.
Published in BloombergQuint.com, May 3, 2017, at https://www.bloombergquint.com/opinion/2017/05/03/why-did-turkeys-erdogan-offer-to-play-peacemaker-on-kashmir