Nurturing relations with Turkey is like walking on eggshells. I learned this early in my days as speechwriter in the Prime Minister's Office when Turgut Ozal, then Prime Minister of Turkey, came visiting in March 1986 on what, my memory tells me, was the first-ever visit by a Turkish PM to our country. I thought it appropriate to include in Rajiv Gandhi's banquet speech a quote from Jawaharlal Nehru's Autobiography
that referred to Generalissimo Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's breakthrough at the Battle of Afium Qarahisar in August 1922 that resulted in the Greeks being driven out of Turkish lands. Nehru, then imprisoned in Lucknow district jail, wrote: "We celebrated the Turkish triumph by decorating our prison barrack with such odds and ends as we could gather, and there was even an attempt at illumination in the evening."
The following day, the storm broke. The Prime Minister of Greece, a close associate of the Indian Prime Minister, called in the Indian Ambassador to lodge a protest against this invocation of what he described as genocide against the Greeks. Some deft diplomatic footwork by Chinmay Gharekhan, Joint Secretary in PMO dealing with foreign affairs, succeeded in quickly defusing the situation, but I had learned my lesson. Where the old Roman saying is, "Beware of Greeks bringing gifts", its 20th century version had to also include the warning, "Beware of Turks bearing gifts"!
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister's Office has little by way of institutional memory. So also, it would seem, our Ministry of External Affairs. For the state visit to India of President Erdogan last week was scheduled in the immediate aftermath of the state visit of the President of Cyprus, without regard to my faux pas
or Turkish sensitivities with regard to their neighbouring island of Cyprus.
To understand these acute sensitivities, we first have to look at the map. To the immediate south-south-west of Turkey lies Cyprus, closer geographically to Turkey than Greece but, in terms civilizational heritage, so close to Greece that the pull of the latter overcomes distance - at least for the Greek-speaking, Orthodox Christian majority living in the island. On the other hand, the affinity of the Turkish-speaking Muslim Cypriot in the North of the island is clearly with Turkey. In 1974, claiming to forestall a Greek-Cypriot move for "Enosis", that is, union with Greece, the Turkish army marched into the Turkish-majority northern part of the island and split the small island in two. There was international outrage at this unilateral Turkish action, which resulted in the stationing of a UN Peace-Keeping Force in Cyprus, with an Indian general, Inderjit Rikhye, leading the contingent. India came out strongly in favour of the Cypriot leader, Archbishop Makarios. Pakistan was among the very few countries that extended diplomatic recognition to the Turkish presence in the island.
It took extraordinary diplomatic incompetence to schedule visits to India by the Cypriot and Turkish presidents in such immediate proximity to each other, indeed in succession to each other. The Turkish President chose to hit back. In an interview to Ramesh Ramachandran of WION TV, given at Istanbul days before he was to embark for New Delhi, Erdogan went out of his way to describe Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif as "my dear friend" and "a good-intentioned man", with whom he had been discussing Indo-Pak issues "at length" and whom he had "personally heard" speaking "about settling this issue (J&K) once and for all."
He went on to advise India to do exactly what the Modi government refuses to do: talk to Pakistan. Indeed, Erdogan went further, urging "strengthening dialogue between stakeholders" and implicitly including Turkey among the "stakeholders". He then explained further that what he stood for was "strengthening multilateral dialogue," adding "we (Turkey) can be involved" and "through multilateral dialogue I think we have to seek ways to settle this question". So much for Modi's efforts to "isolate" Pakistan!
PM Modi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held bilateral talks in New Delhi
Erdogan is far too experienced a statesman (as he reminded Ramachandran, he had been Mayor of Istanbul, PM for 12 years and President for two-and-a-half) to have made these remarks off-hand and without seriously considering the implications. Clearly, his objective was to tick off his imminent hosts for the compliments the Indian Prime Minister had showered on the visiting Cypriot President: "I am aware of your initiative for resolving the Cyprus issue. You have led from the front in trying to bring a new era of peace, development and security. Not just for Cyprus, but for the whole region. We wish you every success in your efforts." Modi reminded his distinguished Cypriot guest that "in 1974, India took a firm stand in support of the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the Republic of Cyprus."
The Turkish Embassy in Delhi and the Government of Turkey in Ankara, more particularly President Erdogan's private office, would have scrutinized every syllable of that statement. "You have led from the front" - so that means Turkey is lagging behind and has to be dragged along (just as if the Maldives were leading India by the nose); that resolving the "Cyprus issue" is, pointedly, a Cypriot and not a Turkish step (meaning Turkey just sits on its haunches doing nothing); that this is bringing "a new era", and "not just for Cyprus but for the whole region" (i.e., including Turkey, while Erdogan gapes uncomprehendingly); and that "We wish you every success" (i.e., we wish Turkey every failure). Not just that: Modi added for good measure: "In 1974, India took a firm stand in support of the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the Republic of Cyprus" (because - was the import of the words - Turkey, none other, had violated the "sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity" of the Republic of Turkey: music to Cypriot ears; a hideous symphony to Turkish ears). Moreover, the "firm stand" we took 43 years ago remains our stand (just the sweet kind of reminder to issue to the Turkish President on the eve of his making his way to India as the first President to do so!)
Erdogan must have hit the ceiling. He plotted appropriate revenge. Hence the interview to Ramesh Ramchandran to remind Modi that if you think you can poke me one in the eye, I can poke you in both of yours. Is this the way to conduct foreign policy? I am not suggesting we change our decades-old policy. I am only suggesting that we should have separated the two visits by a sufficient interval to make memories of the first visit fade before scheduling the next. It reveals the total incompetence of the Modi government that both visits were scheduled cheek-by-jowl. In consequence, we have damaged our relations with both.
It doesn't end there. We have also damaged our emerging relations with Armenia, another neighbour of Turkey, and thereby inflicted damage too on our emerging relations with Turkey. Armenia is wedged between Turkey and Azerbaijan. There is a continuing territorial conflict between the two. More to the point, the Armenians claim they were the victims of genocide when Ataturk's armies over-ran Anatolia in August-September 1922. Turkey hotly denies the charge. There is a UN resolution endorsing the Armenian charge. Several Western parliaments have also adopted resolutions bemoaning the alleged "genocide". Scholars are at logger-heads with each other on whether at all anything that could be termed "genocide" occurred. Although it is close to a hundred years since the alleged genocide, the charge remains hot on the contemporary international agenda.
Yet, Modi chose the last week of April, just before Erdogan's visit in the first week of May, to send Vice-President Mohammed Hamid Ansari to Armenia on 25-26 April. Ansari, being the practiced diplomat that he is, neatly handled his visit to give offence to none, but it was the very decision to send the Vice-President on the first-ever visit by an Indian Vice-President to Armenia, and that too precisely on the eve of the Turkish President's much blown-up state visit to India, that really irked the Turks, perhaps Erdogan personally even more than the mandarins in Turkey's Foreign Office. Indeed, the Secretary concerned in the Ministry of External Affairs claimed in an official press briefing on 21 April that the Vice-President was going to Armenia because India and Armenia share "similar mindset (sic!)". Since Armenia's "mindset" is obsessed with 1922, this was the final red rag to Erdogan's bull. He decided enough was enough - and called Ramachandran over. The WION interview was his way of putting Modi in his place.
None of this was unknown to the Ministry of External Affairs. The area experts in South Block would have known what the outcome of such scheduling would be. Alas, the Foreign Ministry is no longer independent or free to give its views. The Prime Minister's Office over-rules them because, under Modi, his office is all. Professionalism has given way to whimsy. The nation's interests come second. And it is the nation's interests that suffer.(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.