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Could ‘Operation Dost’ shift the tides in favour of a Turkiye-India friendship?

India became the first responder for Humanitarian Assistance to Turkiye and Syria as the region grappled with the massive earthquake. This step forward can have positive implications for increasing India's involvement as a friendly nation in the region.

The Indian Army set up a field hospital in the Earthquake affected areas.

As the Indian search and rescue operation team returned home, Turkiye officially extended a gesture of gratitude acknowledging India’s disaster relief efforts as a part of “Operation Dost”. Dost, the common word for friendship in Turkish and Indian languages, has come to signify one of the largest disaster relief and mitigation operations carried out by India in Turkiye and Syria after the region was hit by a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake and multiple aftershocks recently.

India has quickly gained the status of the first responder to the crisis as the dispatched a delegation of military medical professionals to set up a field hospital to provide medical relief to the survivors of the disaster while also carrying out rescue and search operations simultaneously. The elaborate visuals of the 99 member Indian contingent setting up a fully equipped medical camp and providing humanitarian relief to the injured in the devastating disaster has warmed the hearts of many all over the world and not to mention, won the hearts of the people in the region who have praised India’s quick humanitarian aid.

The rescue and search operations as well as the humanitarian assistance was not just limited to Turkiye but was extended to Syria as well. This is particularly important because Syria has been facing an acute problem of access to such aid in the midst of political crisis, protracted armed conflicts, international sanctions and now this natural disaster.

While India’s efforts as the first responder have been praised and hailed as they should be, they hold a much larger meaning than extending humanitarian support. India’s ‘disaster diplomacy’ as it is eloquently termed is also a tool for expanding the sphere of influence as a part of the larger agenda.

The question however remains, what is the larger agenda? Does India want to strategically employ its resources to become a favourable partner to Turkiye?

When it comes to Turkiye -India relations, the tides have often been turbulent. Ever since Erdogan started latching on to his dream of the resurgence of Ottoman supremacy in the Islamic world, the relationship has been a tough one to sustain. Turkiye has been categorically critical of India’s stand and measures taken on the issue of Kashmir. Under the garb of criticising the Indian state on Kashmir, what Erdogan was primarily doing was to establish his outright support to Pakistan in this case. The closer ties that Turkiye attempted to build with Pakistan have been a festering wound in the India-Turkiye relationship.

This dream of ‘islamization’ and the rebuilding of Ottoman hegemony has not always stood in the way of the ties between the two countries however. The anti-colonial legacies of the two nations were connected, the Khilafat movement in India was the epitome of Indian support to the authority of the Caliph or the Khalifa. However the momentum of this relationship was lost over the years, as India became independent and the rage of the Cold war occupied the nations’ foreign policies, Turkiye and India again found themselves on different sides. While Turkiye remained to be a western ally, India was wholeheartedly committed to the policy of non-alignment, the traces of these two postures are still evident in the present dynamics.

Consider Pakistan in this equation. During the Cold War years, as India was building an alternate mechanism in the name of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM), Pakistan was seeking to benefit from an alliance with the West. The mutual alliance with the West pitted Turkiye and Pakistan in the same camp. The policies in those years have come to define the postures of the present as well and this is one of the reasons why Turkiye has been an active supporter of Pakistan over India. One reason is to protect the Islamic brotherhood and garner support for ambitions of Turkish supremacy in the Islamic world. The other reason is a direct threat from India as it builds stronger relations with Armenia and Greece, the two countries in protracted conflict with Turkiye. Turkiye’s alliance with Pakistan became even more prominent after the 2016 failed Turkish coup that established Erdogan as an authoritarian figure and opened a pandora’s box of fundamentalist Islamist aspirations that were earlier hidden under the garb of secularism.

At this point however, this alliance with Pakistan would hardly bear fruit. The country itself is mired in a string of economic, social and structural challenges and needs constant financial support from the international community. It is in no position to prove to be a reliable ally and here comes the strategic importance of India.

It seems that Turkiye has come to realise this fact as well. It was in the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s last conference that India’s Prime Minister Modi and Turkiye’s President Erdogan held a bilateral meeting and ignited the possibilities of a more reformed and liberal relationship between the two countries. When it came to the question of India’s policies in Kashmir, it was observed that Turkiye had a much more moderate stance than expressed before. The higher economic engagements between Turkiye and India over the last few years has been a testament to this shift in the policy. The bilateral trade between the two countries was at the highest in 2021, signalling a favourable economic partnership for the future. It goes without saying that Turkiye can hardly develop a similar economic engagement with Pakistan at present.

Whether Erdogan would shift his policies in favour of India any further and whether economic pragmatism would take precedence over the ambitions of an Islamist influence over the world is for time to tell. However, as the country attempts to overcome the ravages of this massive earthquake, the humanitarian aid provided by India would still leave a fine imprint in the national consciousness of Turkiye and this development has the potential to become a game changer for India’s engagement with the country.

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