Diplomacy is serious business. Salman Khurshid should know; he was a junior minister in the external affairs ministry earlier. This time though he takes over as the cabinet minister in a ministry considered one of three most important ones. Along with home and defence, external affairs is the critical part of the cabinet’s trimurti.
In that sense it must be regarded as an elevation for Khurshid, though his previous portfolios of minority affairs and law were important too. But external affairs puts a minister in international spotlight that no other ministry can, and there is no doubt that it also ensures a constant national focus. Was this elevation then a notice to Arvind Kejriwal and the IAC that their charges against Khurshid have not deterred the government from deciding to make him the external affairs minister?
Salman’s appointment also marks many firsts. This is the first time a member of the Muslim community has been appointed as external affairs minister of India. There have been appointments at the MoS (minister of state) level earlier; Salman’s father Khurshed Alam Khan, Salman himself, Omar Abdullah and E Ahamed now. With Ahamed as the minister of state, the minorities will have a double representation in this part of the South Block. And the firsts don’t end just there. As the other MoS in MEA is Preneet Kaur, the ministry will have a completely non-majoritarian team.
Since everything to do with diplomacy has a subtle message hidden somewhere, is it the PM’s intention to convey a signal of special interest to the Arab world? There is no doubt that the Gulf in particular is important for us as a source of secure and substantial energy supply. Moreover, one of the largest populations of NRIs in the world is based in the Gulf States. Despite that, it cannot be said that India has given this region the importance it deserves.
There has certainly not been a regular exchange of visits at the highest level, nor indeed at the level of external affairs minister. Every visit is not path- breaking and every high-level meeting is not expected to result in new agreements. That would be both unrealistic and impractical. But regular exchanges are important because they remove irritants in bilateral relations before they can become misunderstandings. Moreover by patient nurturing, the leadership can reach out to its counterparts in times of need.
Our neighbourhood naturally occupies a very large space in external affairs. The outgoing minister had made a special mention of the personal equations he claims to have developed with his counterparts from China and Pakistan. This is as it should be. But personal relations must serve a national purpose, otherwise they are ephemeral. They last only so long as the power lasts; the world then moves on to cultivate the new incumbent. And what use are personal equations where one side says that we must forget the past, meaning thereby our concerns about 26/11, while maintaining that Kashmir cannot be forgotten by Pakistan!
Pakistan will continue to be our big challenge. And the optics of how India’s national interests are projected will remain the measure of ministerial success. The picture will become even more complex as the drawdown of American forces from Afghanistan accelerates, and as 2014 comes closer. The USA has at last come to realise that they were merely trimming the branches of terrorism in Afghanistan. The roots continues to flourish in Pakistan. But this realisation has come too late.
Americans are tired and short of money. They want a safe way out. That may be the American desire, but whether the Taliban will facilitate that passage courteously is hard to guess. The possibility that it may become a repetition of their humiliating retreat from Vietnam cannot be ruled out. Increasingly, in the coming months, the situation in Afghanistan is likely to turn more complex. Pakistan hopes that it will be a big gainer there. Whether it drains Pakistan in the process is a puzzle for future. India too has a stake in the developments there. The challenge for Khurshid will be to remain engaged in Afghanistan without becoming involved.
Given his previous experience in the ministry, Salman is unlikely to read some other foreign minister’s speech at an international forum. And he is unlikely to negotiate with a junior diplomat of a small European state if an NRI child is taken away into protective custody. Rushing to grab media space is not a substitute for sound policy and substance. As Talleyrand had once said, “A diplomat must be like a duck; calm and serene on the surface, while tirelessly paddling below to promote his country’s interests.”
A former ambassador, the writer is a novelist and an artist.