Salman Khurshid – India’s New External Affairs Minister

Salman Khurshid was appointed as India’s minister of external affairs on 28 October, as part of an extensive cabinet reshuffle.Khurshid replaced 80-year-old SM Krishna, the previous postholder, who had been suffering from health problems.

It is a return to familiar surroundings for Khurshid, who was a junior minister in the foreign office between 1993 and 1996during the government of PV Narasimha Rao. During that period, he was involved in the formation of India’s “Look East” policy,which remains a major priority for India, and one which it has more actively pursued in recent years as it seeks to secureeconomic, energy, and security interests in southeast and east Asia, sometimes placing it in competition with China.

India’s former external affairs minister, SM Krishna, left, gestures to Salman Khurshid, right, to take the seat as the newminister in New Delhi, India, on 28 October 2012. India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh reshuffled his Cabinet in a bid tooverhaul his government’s image ahead of state and national elections over the next 18 months.

Taking up the challenges of the post, Khurshid said that he saw “great opportunities… but also great challenges to peace andprosperity in our world”. As the first Muslim to hold the foreign portfolio in 16 years, Khurshid may prove an asset in negotiationswith Pakistan, but his appointment has come at an awkward time in which he faces corruption allegations against a non-governmentalorganisation that he oversees, although he has consistently denied all such accusations.

Experienced politician

Khurshid is from a political family – his grandfather, Dr Zakir Hussain, was a former president of India and his father wasgovernor of the southern state of Karnataka and also served as a minister in the foreign office. He developed a close associationwith the Gandhi family, working in the Prime Minister’s Office during Indira Gandhi’s rule in 1981 before practising law inthe Supreme Court. In addition to his professional qualifications, his good relationship with the Gandhi family will havehelped him in being appointed to his present position. He won a parliamentary seat in Farrukhabad in Uttar Pradesh in 1991for the Congress Party (his second attempt after failing in 1989) and was given the post of deputy minister of commerce beforebecoming minister of state for external affairs in January 1993. His most notable achievement during his first stint in theforeign office was leading the Indian delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 1994 and giving a stirringspeech that helped defeat a Pakistan-sponsored resolution on the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Khurshid has faced a difficult balancing act between his liberal politics and Muslim identity. In the past, Muslim leadershave accused him of too close a relationship with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He worked alongsideformer BJP leader Atul Behari Vajpayee in the UN delegation. Muslims were also angered by his ambivalent stand on issues suchas the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1993. Meanwhile, liberals were displeased by his support for the ban on Salman Rushdie’sSatanic Verses and Hindu conservatives were angered to see him representing the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI),a proscribed group accused of terrorist activity, in court in 2002. Khurshid unsuccessfully pressed for the ban on the groupto be lifted, and later appeared as a defence lawyer for SIMI members accused of terrorist activities.

Criticism from Muslim leaders that he did not support the Muslim constituency enough contributed to him losing his parliamentaryseat in 1996, after which Khurshid worked in the party bureaucracy as president of the Uttar Pradesh party and later as generalsecretary of the All India Congress Committee. He returned to parliament in 2004, having been instrumental in developing acampaign aimed at the aam aadmi (“common man”), which proved highly successful.

He has since held a number of portfolios, including water resources, minority affairs, and most recently, law and justice,but his real value to the party lay in his oratory and he has become a key spokesman for the party on a wide range of issuesin recent years, as well as leading negotiations with a civil society anti-corruption movement during a series of high-profilehunger strikes by activists in 2011.

Unfavourable year

The past year has not been favourable for Khurshid, however. His problems began in January during the Congress Party’s disastrousstate election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, in which his wife Louise stood for a seat. His promise to provide a sub-quota ofgovernment jobs for Muslims in Backward castes (part of the Scheduled Castes officially recognised in India’s constitution)was seen as a violation of the election code of conduct by the Election Commission and an abuse of his powers as law minister.Initially defiant, he eventually retracted his statement and was accused of fostering communalism in the campaign. His wifefailed to win the seat, and the Congress party was trounced by regional parties, coming fourth.

Outlook and implications

An Oxford-educated lawyer known for his erudition and left-of-centre liberalism, Khurshid takes up his new role at a criticaljuncture for India’s foreign policy, in which there has been minimal progress on the peace dialogue with Pakistan and keynegotiations are imminent on the future of Afghanistan. After the quiet and occasionally gaffe-prone approach of Krishna,he is likely to represent a more dynamic and confident presence on the international circuit. External affairs ministers havestruggled in the past to impose themselves against the directions of the Prime Minister’s Office, although he stated afterhis appointment that he has been instructed to bring new thinking to the office by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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