India’s newly appointed foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, a politician of impeccable political lineage hailing from Uttar Pradesh, the most powerful state in India, has for some time been the target of remarks like “dhoonda Musalman, mil gaya Salman”.
His appointment illustrates the crisis of the liberal Muslim in India today, caught between the conservative leadership of the community that demands total religious conformity and the just-under-the-skin communalism of the seemingly liberal Hindu.
Khurshid cannot have found the path easy — he notes as much with wry humour in his play, The Sons of Babar, which traces the evolution of India as we know it through the eyes of a young man’s imagined conversations with Mughal emperor Bahadurshah Zafar in the confusing days after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
Khurshid’s rise to power has been slow. Indian National Congress’s prospects in Uttar Pradesh have been down for several decades now. Being Khurshid’s home state, the condition has been a reflection on him as well. He was first commerce minister, then external affairs, and later joined the cabinet as minister for law and minority affairs. He has been an important sounding board for his party. He was asked to become a member of the Group of Ministers on Media, the core of the government which is authorised to clarify, correct, and provide information on government moves, both on- and off-the record.
He was an important negotiator between the Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption (IAC) and the government during the standoff at Ramleela Maidan, and his legal expertise was put to good use in drafting a Lok Pal bill that was both consistent with the constitution and acceptable to the IAC.
Few know that Khurshid was an important behind-the-scenes-actor in the controversy over the age of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) VK Singh, and that he actually prepared a draft of a letter that would have pulled both the COAS and government back from the brink.
Khurshid is known to be a witty but courteous politician. He loves animals – few know that his Delhi home is a virtual menagerie of birds, rabbits, dogs, cows and cats — no sick animal is ever turned away.
As minister for external affairs, Khurshid will be sharp and pointed in relations with Pakistan, very committed to setting relations right with the country. At the same time, those who believe they will be able to play on his religion should watch out: he is nobody’s fool and understands history and politics with equal facility.
If his predecessor SM Krishna was courteous and restrained, the world will see an Indian foreign minister who is courteous but not restrained if provoked.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 30th, 2012.