He makes it all look too easy, whether it is being Law Minister or dashing off a play
On Saturday, it was open house at 4, Kushak Road, Salman Khurshid’s official residence, as friends and well-wishers streamed in to greet him on Eid, and be pressed to partake of the sumptuous biryani and sevaiyan laid on in the dining room. It was a day like many others in the Khurshid household, where Eid, Christmas, the onset of the mango season or indeed, any occasion to celebrate, is marked by good food and hospitality.
But as Mr. Khurshid sat in his living room, desultorily watching TV anchors speculate endlessly on the impending ministerial reshuffle, there was no indication at all of any possible change in his own fortunes.
Indeed, the last year hasn’t been good for Mr. Khurshid: first, there was the controversy over his announcement of a quota for Muslims in the midst of the Uttar Pradesh elections, the defeat of wife Louise, in Farrukhabad, a throwaway remark about Congress president Sonia Gandhi shedding tears after seeing photos of the Batla House encounter, and more recently, the accusations of financial irregularities levelled against an NGO of which he is the chairman, followed by an unseemly spat with TV journalists. As Mr. Khurshid immersed himself in filing defamation suits against the TV group, activist Arvind Kejriwal demanded that he be dropped from the government altogether. Congressmen told journalists he would be lucky if he kept the law portfolio.
And then on Sunday morning, he became External Affairs Minister, apparently without making any effort.
Mr. Khurshid hides a sharp intellect, behind an easy charm, a gift for words, a genius for mimicry (anyone from Mulayam Singh to Arun Shourie) and the appearance of being a dilettante in politics. He makes it all look too easy, whether it is being Law Minister or dashing off a play — his “Sons of Babur” was staged with actor Tom Alter in the lead. In part, it is because he was born well: maternal grandfather Zakir Hussain was India's first Muslim President, father Khurshid Alam Khan a Congress Minister and later a Governor. Mr. Khurshid is the ultimate Lutyen’s insider, who grew up in the heart of political Delhi, moving from the elite St. Stephens College to Oxford, where he acquired a law degree, before embarking on a teaching stint at Trinity College in the same university.
In part, it is because he can’t bear to take himself seriously: it is seldom that he can resist cracking a joke, something that has landed him in trouble more often than before as he has acquired a greater public profile, especially after the Anna Hazare crisis catapulted him to political centre stage. After colleagues Kapil Sibal and P. Chidambaram got entangled in arguments with Team Anna, Mr. Khurshid was asked to step in to help the government deal with the confrontation with civil society activists on the Lokpal Bill issue. He subsequently emerged as the government's spokesperson on virtually every subject.
At times, Mr. Khurshid’s penchant for obscure references has been misunderstood totally: when he recently said at a public meeting, “I have been made the Law Minister and asked to work with the pen. I will work with the pen, but also with blood.” Mr. Kejriwal interpreted it as meaning that he would kill him. But Mr. Khurshid was on a different planet: he was referring to a book on the American Constitution, “In blood and ink,” written at the turn of the 20 century by an American politician, Maury Maverick: the book’s thesis is that a Constitution is not just written in ink, but with the blood – or sufferings – of a people.
Indeed, despite his impressive lineage, an enviable political legacy, a gilded education and oratorical skills, his political career has not always been smooth. In 1981, he returned from Oxford to a job in Indira Gandhi’s PMO – as OSD. Thereafter, he struggled to stay afloat in U.P. politics, losing a Lok Sabha election from Farrukhabad in 1989, when the Congress’ fortunes were on the wane. But in 1991, he won the same seat, and became MoS for External Affairs in the Narasimha Rao government. He had his moment in the sun: a historic image captured a beaming Mr. Khurshid in a bear hug with BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee, head of the Indian delegation to the U.N., after they tasted diplomatic success in the international body. His detractors seized on that photograph and displayed it as evidence of his “cosy” relationship with the BJP during the 1996 polls. His ambivalent stand on the Shah Bano case and the demolition of the Babri Masjid did not help either with the Muslim faithful. At heart a liberal, Mr. Khurshid has publicly swung from liberal positions to hardline conservatism. He often complains that Muslims don’t see him as Muslim enough, whereas for many Congressmen, he is just a Muslim. This dilemma has sometimes led him to err on the other side as he did when in a burst of political pragmatism he supported the ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
After his 1996 loss, his two stints as president of the Uttar Pradesh Congress unit didn’t help take his career forward. His detractors accused him of promoting factionalism; his supporters said his laidback style was unsuited for the rough and tumble of Congress politics. Next came a personal tragedy when his teenaged daughter, Ayesha, died of a kidney ailment: overnight, he greyed.
In the run-up to the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, he and Jairam Ramesh transformed the Congress catchline Congress ka haath garib ke saath into Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath. Mr. Khurshid explained that the object was to expand the party’s focus from the poor to include the common man – i.e. the middle class. In the event, it was a very successful slogan, and one of the many elements that saw the Congress come to power in 2004. In 2009, Mr. Khurshid won the Farrukhabad seat and was inducted into the government, moving from MoS with independent charge to a Cabinet berth. He has held several portfolios since — Water Resources, Corporate Affairs, Minority Affairs, Law and Justice and now it is External Affairs.
That Mr. Khurshid is a natural for his new job is a given: it is to be hoped that in the circles he will now move in, he will be better understood — and appreciated.