NEW DELHI - Indian Premier Manmohan Singh brought seven new faces into his cabinet Sunday in the biggest and the “last” reshuffle since his re-election as he tried to revive his party’s flagging fortunes before polls due in 2014.
In all 22 federal ministers, including junior ministers, were sworn in. But the most glittering shift came with the appointment of a Muslim, Salman Khurshid, 59, as a replacement for the 80-year-old foreign minister SM Krishna in an attempt to dispel the image of a struggling government, which recently lost its majority.
As for any foreign minister in New Delhi, Khurshid’s most delicate diplomatic dossier will be relations with India’s troubled Muslim rival Pakistan. Interacting with media after his appointment as foreign minister, Khurshid said he would try to strengthen ties with Pakistan.
As he moved into his new office in New Delhi, Khurshid made clear that he would get straight to work and said that he had been briefed by Prime Minister Singh, 80, to bring fresh thinking to his post.
“I have a lot of home work to do... as I want to take India’s foreign policy ahead,” he told reporters shortly after he was officially elevated from his post law minister. “In the last few years, foreign policy has vastly changed... We have to do out of box thinking and go beyond theology... We have to think of the great opportunities the world offers today.”
“There are completely different perspectives on Pakistan and China. China is in that sense we are clearer about where we stand with China. We have had differences historically. I believe that with the passage of time and emergence of a new economic order in the world has brought China and India far closer together, working together but the potential of growth between China and India, I think is enormous.”
Khurshid raised concerns over the political scenario in Pakistan. “As far as Pakistan is concerned, Pakistan has been an extremely troubled situation in a very troubled part of the world and it is a neighbour and that is a concern for us as well. I think the convergence between India and Pakistan today is on issues that for long we insisted, those issues which were a major concern to India both in terms of our security and our dignity.”
Many of those issues have now emerged in Pakistan itself and have become a concern for Pakistani establishment. So if there was ever, ever a convergent point on tackling these issues between India and Pakistan, it is there today,” he said.
Khurshid said: “We want to be able to look at possible roots towards being able to work more closely together, be able to understand each other’s problems and to the extent that we can solve each other’s problems mutually and by convergence of opinion on both our countries. I think it is something that we should work towards.”
The other newcomers in the Inian Cabinet include another Muslim, Rahman Khan, who was named as minority affairs minister. The law ministry went to Ashwani Kumar, a ruling Congress party loyalist. Ajay Maken became housing minister and Dinsha Patel mines minister.
They will be joined by Pallam Raju, who was promoted to human resources development minister. However there was no place at the cabinet table for Rahul Gandhi, the 42-year-old scion of the Gandhi-Nehru political dynasty, who once again turned down an offer to enter government.
Harish Rawat was placed in charge of water resources and Chandresh Kumari was appointed culture minister. Singh named parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Kumar Bansal as new railways minister, a post which became vacant following the pullout of a regional ally, Trinamool, from the ruling coalition in September.
Speaking to reporters after a swearing-in ceremony for the new ministers, Singh said he expected his new team to remain in office until the next elections. ““Probably this is the last reshuffle,” the prime minister said at the presidential palace in New Delhi. “I don’t see early elections. Elections will be held in due course.”
As for Pakistan and India relations, the two states last year resumed their tentative peace process, which collapsed after Mumbai attacks in November 2008. The two nuclear-powered neighbours have fought three wars since independence in 1947, two of them over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which is divided by a heavily militarised Line of Control and which both countries claim in full.
One of the most embarrassing episodes of Krishna’s tenure came in 2010 at talks in Islamabad with his Pakistan counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi who accused him during a press conference of having to take his orders by phone from New Delhi. The gaffe-prone Krishna also came in for ridicule in the same year when he read out parts of the Portuguese foreign minister’s speech at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York.
Analysts said Khurshid, who served as junior foreign minister in the 1990s, was likely to demonstrate a surer footing than his predecessor. “One thing is clear, the man knows his job,” said SK Jha, a professor of international relations at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. “He has a grip on diplomacy and will not be a cause of embarrassment like Krishna,” Jha told AFP.
Khurshid is India’s first Muslim foreign minister in 16 years. The 59-year-old new External Affairs’ minister, who is 21 years younger than his predecessor SM Krishna, was the most eye-catching appointment in a cabinet revamp designed to reinvigorate a government which has shown distinct signs of fatigue.
Labelled “Mr Confident” by the media, Khurshid hails from a family which has been at the heart of Indian politics ever since independence. His father, Khurshid Alam was the first Muslim to serve as a minister in the foreign office and his great-father, Zakir Hussain, was the president of India.
While Muslims – who numbered 138 million in last year’s census – have held some of India’s most senior positions including the post of president, they are one of its most marginalised communities. The percentage of Muslims to hold jobs and the level of literacy lag well behind those of other major religions such as Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, the census found.
Khurshid studied at Oxford University in England before becoming a lawyer in the Supreme Court. He also worked as a teacher. Khurshid has been in the headlines more recently over accusations that he and his wife Louise had siphoned off funds for a charity for the disabled.
In fact, the Singh government itself has been mired in scandals in recent months, most notably by revelations surrounding the tender process for state-owned coal mines. Economic growth, which had been touching double figures at the beginning of Singh’s second term, has now slowed down to around five percent.
Trinamool’s pullout in protest at a series of economic reforms means the government is now a minority administration. It is no immediate danger of falling as it has secured the support of another regional party which is outside cabinet.
India’s two largest opposition parties scoffed at the shakeup, dubbing it a futile exercise by a scandal-tainted government. “It is a vain exercise by the government to refurbish its image in the face of the corruption charges it is facing,” Rajiv Pratap Rudi, spokesman of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, told AFP.
Communists, who have dubbed the recent rush of reforms by the government as “anti-people”, also mocked the long-awaited revamp. “The policies of the government will be the same they have been pursuing,” Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, told AFP.
Analysts too doubted that Sunday’s overhaul would do much for Congress’s fortunes when the country votes in an election scheduled for the spring of 2014. “The cabinet reshuffle is a wake-up call which has come too late, just as the big-ticket reforms have come too late,” said Ajay Saha, a political scientist at Delhi University.
Singh confirmed that he had offered a cabinet post to Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather all served as prime minister, but the offer was declined. “I wanted Rahul Gandhi in government but he wants to strengthen the party,” Singh said.
Gandhi currently serves as a member of parliament and heads the youth wing of the main ruling Congress party. Singh himself, who turned 80 last month, is not expected to run for a third term in office.