At the end of their meeting, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped out of the room where they had been closeted for all of 35 minutes. Erdogan turned to Vajpayee and asked, "So are you going to send troops to Iraq?" Vajpayee promptly replied, "No." After his customary, famous pause, he then added, "There's no clarity at all." Erdogan mulled over Vajpayee's reply and responded, "We are in the same boat."
A few months ago, it would have been difficult to imagine India and Turkey sailing the same boat in the choppy waters of international diplomacy, quite palpably in upheaval due to US President George Bush's decision to invade Iraq. As Air-India's 747 Tanjore jet took off on September 16, Vajpayee became the first prime minister in 15 years to visit Turkey. (Rajiv Gandhi had visited in 1988.) Even foreign ministers didn't have Ankara on their radar screen. Yashwant Sinha's visit here last month was the first a foreign minister had undertaken since, believe it or not, 1976. Against this backdrop, you could well describe the PM's trip as historic.
What precisely was Vajpayee's impulse to visit Turkey, beyond the trite jargon of nurturing cooperation and friendly ties, was glimpsed on the Tanjore flight itself. He walked to the media enclosure and snuggled into a chair. After minutes of that very familiar silence, he was requested to spell out the import of his visit to Turkey. Vajpayee replied, "Because of developments in Iraq, many questions have arisen. These will have a bearing on the future of the world. These questions will be discussed." He then retreated to his office aboard the aircraft, leaving journalists to mull over the special context in his words.
It wasn't only the Indian entourage that was conscious of the troubled Iraqi backdrop. This became clear the moment the prime minister's delegation arrived in Ankara. Vajpayee was on Page 1 in three newspapers. In one, he said domestic considerations would be a factor at the time India takes a decision on the troops question. A day later, he was quoted as saying that "our internal security situation" would also have to be borne in mind. With the US keen to solicit both India and Turkey's assistance in Iraq, Vajpayee's remarks were subtle attempts at raising the bar for troops requests from Washington, where he will be next week.
Senior officials say the front page coverage of Vajpayee's visit was unprecedented. It also indicates the measure of success the Vajpayee government's seriousness about making an impact in Turkey has had. This intent is understandable—India's trade with Turkey is under $655 million, about half of what India has with Israel, a country New Delhi has warmed up to only in the last decade. With Turkey's exports to India a measly $65 million, attempts are being made to diversify the economic basket.
India's foreign forays most often have Pakistan's shadow looming over them. And it is no different in Ankara. As a senior Indian delegate explained, "Earlier, Turkey's position was completely tilted towards Pakistan. Which is why the relationship did not reach anywhere earlier." New Delhi's decision to reach out to Ankara has been deliberate because, as sources say, it has started to look eastwards beyond Pakistan. A fresh nato member, Turkey has been largely preoccupied with Europe, with a request pending to join the European Union.
Turkey's relationship with Pakistan is indeed special. Pakistan is kardish, Turkish for brother; India is only a friend. Diplomats concede that even the word friend is a stretch, glossing over the chill in the relationship brought about, partly, because of Turkey's stance on Kashmir and its role as a perennial member of the Organisation of Islamic Conference's Kashmir Committee.In June last year, the Turkish parliament even passed a resolution supporting mediation on Kashmir.
No wonder, Indian diplomats were relieved that Turkey did not mention Pakistan or Kashmir on the prime minister's visit. This distinct change was discerned in August itself during Yashwant Sinha's visit. The Turkish PM, sources say, did not raise the Kashmir issue even once, as had been the practice. Indian diplomats had found it "surprising", but now put it on Turkey perhaps not wanting to introduce a jarring note a month ahead of Vajpayee's visit.
There are also varying perceptions on the question of the Turkish part of Cyprus. Turkey secured the greater portion of Cyprus by deploying troops. India considers it an invasion that led to occupation, akin to the Pakistani occupation of Kashmir. Indian diplomats, though, point to a fundamental difference between the two scenarios: the UN is heavily engaged in resolving the Cyprus issue, unlike in Kashmir.
Over the last six months New Delhi has been beavering away to put content into an India-Turkey relationship. At the end of these prime ministerial talks, it was decided that foreign ministers should meet once a year; that commerce, tourism and defence ministers ought to keep in regular touch. The mutual signalling goes back to 2000, when then prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, visited India but scrupulously avoided making a trip to Pakistan.
India, too, has responded to such signals from Turkey. For instance, even as Vajpayee landed in Istanbul, from Ankara, on Thursday afternoon, the first Turkish Airways flight was taking off for New Delhi. Sources say the civil aviation ministry was pushed to extend this facility within record time. "It all happened in the last six months," said a source. A promotional return fare of $400 has been fixed to promote Turkey as a tourist destination. Earlier, a visit to Turkey would take 14 hours, via Europe or the Gulf. The new arrangement cuts flying time to Istanbul by nine hours.
In a sign of growing contacts, sources say defence minister George Fernandes is also scheduled to visit Turkey. For Pakistan, news of such a visit could well be the equivalent of waving a red rag at the bull. Successive generals in Pakistan have drawn inspiration from modern Turkey's founder, Kemal Ataturk, to overthrow civilian governments, and provide immense salience to the army in the life of the nation-state.
Yet, the comparison is odious. Though the Turkish military has intervened in the civilian functioning of the government many times—most notably in 1960, '71, '80 and '97—it has been to uphold secularism against the threats of Islamists. Turkey takes its secularism seriously, sniffing at even sartorial deviations. Here women in hijab and men with beards are not allowed inside government buildings. This is amazing for a country which with its 65.6 million people (only 0.2 are non-Muslims), mostly concentrated in five cities, has, by conservative estimates, over 8,00,000 mosques. So deep—or warped— was Kemal Ataturk's secularist conviction that he even Latinised the script.
Among Vajpayee's first major engagements was the laying of a wreath at Ataturk's mausoleum. Obviously, cynics among journalists chuckled at the commitment to secularism some sections of the bjp have. Officials, however, say secularism isn't Turkey's main draw; it being a bridge to the West is, as also the way it is plugged into Central Asia through ancient ties and language. It's also India's natural partner for energy cooperation, say sources. Vajpayee alluded to this in his speech at Ankara's Centre for Strategic Research: "We do not share a physical border, but we do have a vast common extended neighbourhood—in Central Asia, West Asia and the Gulf.It is of even greater significance that while our interests overlap in this area, nowhere do they clash."
Seeking broader dialogue, India and Turkey have also set up the now standard Joint Working Group on terrorism. Sources say there is yet no "technical content" in this bilateral mechanism but it will allow each country to air its views on the question. When Vajpayee left Delhi, many had wondered whether he would leave Turkey convinced about the future of an Indo-Turk relationship. The warmth shown to Vajpayee was indeed touching. He thanked his host for their gracious hospitality, making it evident that the tone between the countries had become a shade friendlier. But then, as Vajpayee noted, "We still have to unlock many doors." At least the hunt has begun for the rest of the keys.