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A Muslim nationalist meets a Hindu nationalist

Srinivas Mazumdaru
April 28, 2017

Basking in glory after emerging victorious in a recent divisive referendum, Turkish leader Erdogan is traveling to India as part of a whirlwind tour of global powers. The agenda includes terror, trade and nuclear issues.

Türkei Präsident Erdogan
Image: picture-alliance/abaca/O. Ozer

When Turkey's charismatic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan touches down in India's capital New Delhi for a two-day trip this weekend, he will be treated to the pomp and protocol-dictated flashy ceremonial welcome, in line with the extravagance showered by India's equally popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi on foreign leaders.

Erdogan and Modi share a lot of similarities. They both are rightwing religious nationalists governing vast multicultural democracies and emerging economies. The two leaders highlight their humble beginnings, association with religious groups and their deep personal piety.

They cast themselves as leaders who are determined to take the fight to the established elites and deliver a more prosperous future for the common man.

They are effective orators, with an uncanny knack to reach out to their followers and sell them their visions for the future of their respective nations. Even their electoral pledges - solid economic development and good governance - look strangely similar.

Indien Narendra Modi in Neu-Delhi
While Modi and his supporters advocate an illiberal form of Hindu nationalism, Erdogan and his followers are the standard-bearers of Muslim conservatismImage: Reuters/A. Abidi

Both came from religious-nationalist political groupings, although their religious affiliations are different.

While Modi and his supporters advocate an illiberal form of Hindu nationalism, Erdogan and his followers are the standard-bearers of Muslim conservatism. Both leaders espouse majoritarian politics in their countries, with all the concomitant effects of rising intolerance and communal tensions.

Business and trade

So there is no dearth of experiences to share when Modi and Erdogan meet on May 1 in New Delhi. The Turkish president is also scheduled to hold talks with his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee and a host of other senior Indian officials, as well as take part in a gathering of business people from both countries.

Enhancing and deepening trade and investment ties between India and Turkey appears to be high on Erdogan's agenda, whose entourage includes a 150-member strong business delegation.

India is Turkey's second-largest trading partner in the Asia-Pacific region. But an impetus on the trade front seems necessary as bilateral commerce in 2015-16 was down roughly 28 percent year-on-year to $4.91 billion, according to Indian government data. Whereas India's exports to Turkey dipped over 22 percent, Turkish exports saw a whopping 47-percent decline. Modi and Erdogan are also likely to engage in discussions on a proposed free trade pact between the two nations.

Terrorism and nuclear cooperation

But trade is unlikely to be the dominant theme of the talks. Instead, issues related to terrorism and India's bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) are expected to top the agenda.

Both Turkey and India have witnessed numerous terror attacks on their soil and share a common interest in developing as well as implementing potent counterterrorism strategies.

The NSG, meanwhile, is a 48-nation grouping that controls the export of technology and materials used to generate nuclear power and make atomic weapons. India has been fervently campaigning for admission into the club because it believes being a member grants it easier access to technologies and materials that it needs to bolster its nuclear program.

The energy-hungry South Asian nation has grand plans to expand nuclear power to meet the surging electricity demand of its rapidly-growing economy. And becoming an NSG state would elevate the country's prestige and end its embarrassing exclusion from an elite international body.

At the club's meeting last June, New Delhi pushed hard for membership, but failed due to objections from countries like China and New Zealand.

Turkey, which is also a member of the NSG, maintained that the applications of both India and Pakistan should be treated equally, a proposition that irked Indian officials. Ankara has traditionally maintained friendly ties with Islamabad, causing consternation in India.

Observers believe the NSG issue is certain to figure in Modi's talks with Erdogan.

"We remain engaged with Turkey on NSG," Ruchi Ghanashyam, an Indian foreign ministry official told reporters on Thursday.

But as Toby Dalton, an expert on non-proliferation and nuclear energy at the Washington-based think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says: "Although it makes sense for India to be a member of the group, it could take another 1-2 years for the group to discuss all of the issues and implications of bringing India in."

"It isn't a simple political matter, but has many legal, technical and policy implications that the group has not yet discussed."

A difficult balancing act

Erdogan's visit also poses a tricky diplomatic challenge to Indian officials, insofar as New Delhi this week is hosting Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades.

Turkey and Cyprus are embroiled in an unresolved territorial dispute, but both of them are NSG members and India needs their backing to join the group. The two presidents' visits come ahead of an NSG meeting planned for June.

The situation forces Indian officials to perform a delicate balancing act to safeguard the nation's interests.

India is the first stop on Erdogan's itinerary, which includes visits to Russia, China and the US. The tour comes after the Turkish leader declared victory in this month's referendum that granted Erdogan wide-ranging presidential powers.