2012, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Salman ‘right fit’ and a combative choice


New Delhi, Oct. 28: The pink slip has turned fig leaf for the discarded S.M. Krishna; he at least got his departure note right.

Krishna can now credibly claim he was being sagely rather than sarcastic when he pre-empted being dumped by announcing he wanted to make way for “youngsters… who are the flavour of the season”.

Salman Khurshid, who assumes his chair in the ministry of external affairs (MEA), is almost 20 years his junior and, at 59, one of India’s youngest foreign ministers.

Only four persons came to the office younger than Khurshid — Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Rajiv Gandhi. All served as Prime Ministers.

It may seem an odd time for such grand elevation to come to Khurshid; he and wife Louise Khurshid are faced with allegations of graft that they have had to ferociously confront.

Arvind Kejriwal of India Against Corruption, who made the accusation and demanded Khurshid’s dismissal, will complain as will, probably, sections of the Opposition benches. But that worries few in the establishment.

As one senior functionary of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) sharply remarked following the allocation of portfolios this afternoon: “Governments are not picked to please the Opposition, nor dictated by their whims.”

In political circles, Khurshid’s promotion is being viewed as a “combative” move, a signal of “offensive rather than defensive” intent.

The Congress may be cocking a snook at the dare cast by Kejriwal who has threatened to “widen” his protest against the Khurshids and take his battle to their home base of Farrukhabad in Uttar Pradesh.

“We cannot be seen to be giving in tamely to loose charges flung from the street, we cannot let them lead the discourse,” one Congress leader said: “Salman Khurshid is one of our most talented ministers and he has been given a job he deserves.”

It is not standard practice for officials to express opinion over political choices but the first drifts emerging from the MEA suggest an air of relief and welcome.

Khurshid is no newcomer to the foreign office — he served as a junior foreign minister in the Narasimha Rao government between 1993 and 1996 — and those who have worked with him believe he has come to a job he will fit.

“To put it bluntly,” said one diplomat, “his background and persona give him the right cut for the job.” He made a cutting little contrast with Krishna, adding: “Salman isn’t likely to pick up another man’s speech and begin reading it out to the UN General Assembly, he’s all there and very quick on the uptake.”

Khurshid can be quite the opposite of the countenance he has put on evidence lately as riposte to corruption charges — frayed, bellicose and rough enough on the edges to display a belly for bloody battle.

There may be few as well spoken and as well read in Manmohan Singh’s council of ministers; fewer as to-the-manner-born suave as Khurshid can be when he wishes. An alumnus of some of the best institutions in India and abroad — St. Stephen’s College, Delhi and St Edmund Hall, Oxford — he taught at Trinity College and is known to be the pick among India’s legal minds, especially on matters of jurisprudence.

He has, in the recent past, been depended upon to carry out responsibilities abroad even though he was not in the MEA. Khurshid was sent, on more than one occasion, as the Prime Minister’s emissary to Afghanistan on assignments both ceremonial and substantive. He brings with him a fostered understanding of West Asia and the Islamic world, a key arena of India’s, indeed the world’s, concerns.

But Khurshid’s arrival in the foreign office also comes attached with a note of internal circumspection, if not caution.

He’ll be no rubber stamp, most reckon, not one to be content with ceremonials while policy is formulated elsewhere. The PMO has always been the prime mover of major foreign policy initiatives. But with the institutionalisation of the office of national security adviser (NSA), foreign policy has increasingly come under the PMO’s sphere of influence.

During the Krishna years, the drift of policy-making towards the PMO was no longer a matter of speculation. It was not unusual for the foreign secretary and other top mandarins to be reporting directly either to the NSA or the Prime Minister himself.

Often, the communication gap spilled out embarrassingly into the open.

Krishna was travelling back from a visit abroad when the decision was taken for the then foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, to make an ice-breaking post-26/11 visit to Pakistan in the summer of 2010. Krishna had not been consulted. On landing home, he said he knew nothing of any such visit. He had to issue correction post-haste.

That might change with Khurshid, who now not only occupies a seat on the cabinet committee on security (CCS) by dint of being external affairs minister but will also want to be a more pro-active and hands-on man in office. That will require a new calibration of power equations between the PMO, the NSA and the MEA on both the institutional and personal levels.

Almost before the ink has dried on his signature as foreign minister, Khurshid hosts a key summit of Indian Ocean Rim nations in New Delhi. A soft launch, if you will; it will take more out of Khurshid in the months to come to make a prize of this promotion.

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