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Modi And Erdogan: Alike As Two Peas, But Worlds Apart

Raman Swamy

There are some interesting similarities between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  They are almost the same age – 63 and 65. As a teenager, Erdogan sold lemonade and sesame buns on the streets of Istanbul to earn extra money, just as Modi sold tea in railway stations.

Erdogan became President in 2014, the same year Modi was elected Prime Minister, but both of them have been controversial political figures for more than a decade before that. 

From an early age, Erdogan has been deeply involved in religious activism, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s when became known as an Islamic reformer.  As a youth,  Modi too spent years as an RSS field worker, visiting several Hindu ashrams such as the Belur Math near Kolkata, the Advaita Ashram in Almora and Ramakrishna Mission in Rajkot. 

Neither Erdogan nor Modi had much time or inclination for formal education and were average students in school, barely managed to obtain college degrees.  In the Turkish President’s case, although he enrolled in a course in Economics at Marmara University, some of his political opponents dispute his claim that he graduated.  Modi too has been plagued by controversy about whether he obtained a BA degree from Delhi University in 1978. 

As a political leader, Erdogan is considered a highly polarizing figure. His supporters say he has improved the Turkish economy, introduced political reform, and has made significant progress in ending the 30 years of guerrilla war with Kurdish separatists.  Critics have accused him of autocratic tendencies, narcissism and self-aggrandisement – he even built a 1,000 room palace on public land.  Modi’s extravagant election rallies, his expensive clothes and the giant statues erected by his followers have evoked similar comments. 

Ideologically, Erdogan has been heavily criticized for plotting to destroy Turkey's secular identity, curtail freedom of speech and for failing to act against human rights violations.  Much the same charges have been levelled against Modi, whether it was his suspected role in the Gujarat riots or the intolerance debate, policies regarding minority communities, reluctance to condemn hate speech or crack down on lumpen elements engaging in mob justice in the name of cow protection.

Given such striking similarities, the Turkish President’s state visit to India should have led to a rare meeting of minds between the two leaders.  By all accounts, the visit has indeed led to tangible progress in economic terms and a commitment of cooperation on international issues.  As Ergodan himself emphasised, India and Turkey are two of the world’s oldest civilisations, with “an old, rock-solid friendship - Inspired by the past and walking hand in hand together towards the future”.

But then came the fly in the ointment.  Ergodan said:  “India and Pakistan are both friends of Turkey.  I would like to help strengthen the dialogue process for resolving the Kashmir issue which has been festering for the last 70 years.  There is no better option than keeping the channel of dialogue open.  We should not allow more casualties to occur in Kashmir. By having a multilateral dialogue, in which we can be involved, we can seek ways to settle the issue once and for all”. 

The Indian side was clearly not pleased.  The message was politely conveyed to the visiting President and his advisors - Thank you,  Mr. Erdogan, but no thanks.  India believes the Kashmir issue should be resolved bilaterally. There is no question of third party involvement or any multilateral talks.

Sometimes, potentially beautiful relationships can be shaken by a single point of disagreement or a chance remark. The Turkish President’s remarks on Kashmir have proved to be just such a party spoiler, ruining what might have been, could have been a wonderful friendship.  

At a personal level, the two men may have much in common – almost like two peas from the same pod in terms of background, upbringing, personality and character. But poles apart when it comes to geo-political interests and mindsets. 

India should have known.  When Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was in New Delhi last year, there was no ambiguity in his statement on Pakistan and Kashmir:  “Turkey fully supports Pakistan's position on Jammu and Kashmir".  He added that as an active member of the Organisation on Islamic Cooperation's contact group on Kashmir, Turkey would do its best to mediate between India and Pakistan and press for multilateral negotiations.

Frontier
May 03, 2017


Raman Swamy may be contacted at raman.swamy@gmail.com

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