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Indian Diplomacy: Salman Khurshid’s Challenge

He can make big difference if he demonstrates that a bold foreign policy can be good domestic politics.

At 59,India’s new foreign minister,Salman Khurshid is more than two decades younger than his predecessor,S M Krishna,and will undoubtedly bring greater energy to the conduct of India’s diplomacy.

Beyond vigour we can also expect some political grace from Khurshid. His first statement to the media Sunday afternoon as he took charge of the foreign office underlines new possibilities.

The new minister acknowledged the responsibility bestowed on him by the Congress leadership and the contributions made by his many illustrious predecessors.

Khurshid also paid handsome compliments to the officers of the Indian Foreign Service who will do all the hard work for him. All right things to say for India’s new chief diplomat.

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At the Foreign Office,Khurshid’s main challenge is not really about mastering the negotiating briefs with external interlocutors. His task is to strengthen the domestic political consensus in favour of foreign policy.

Khurshid comes to South Block at a rare moment,when most major powers want good relations with Delhi. Even the perennially difficult relations with China,Pakistan and other neighbours are in good shape.

India’s diplomatic clout has never been as large as it is today,

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thanks to the economic growth of the last two decades. Yet,

dysfunctional governance at home has largely prevented India from taking full advantage of the favourable external environment.

Part of the problem has been the lack of political backbone in the UPA government. It has been too willing to step back from major diplomatic initiatives at the first sign of bureaucratic or political resistance.

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The reluctance to lead has been compounded by the inability of the government to mobilize public support for foreign policy goals. The new foreign minister is nothing if he is not articulate. Salman Khurshid is better positioned than many of predecessors to make the public case for India’s many stalled diplomatic initiatives.

A second task for Khurshid is to sustain a high level political

engagement with the UPA coalition partners. Mamata Banerjee was never quite amenable to reason,and blocked many initiatives including the attempt by Manmohan Singh to transform the ties with Dhaka. Many other partners of the UPA are less obstreperous. Khurshid must try and keep them in good political humour.

Even more important,Khurshid must forever be ready to devote personal energies to persuade his Congress colleagues to think big about India’s national interests.

Conservative by nature and raised in another political era,some of Khurshid’s senior colleagues are out of sync with India’s new strategic imperatives. They have killed many of PM’s initiatives with simple trick—do nothing.

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If the PM does not want to exercise the authority of his office over his Cabinet colleagues,Khurshid can use his political skills to convince the senior congressmen to so some out-of-the box thinking.

As the minister of external affairs,Khurshid will be sitting in on

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the powerful Cabinet Committee on Security and will have a major role in shaping India’s approach to many critical issues.

Salman Khurshid can make big difference if he can demonstrate that a bold foreign policy could also be good domestic politics.

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(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a Contributing Editor for ‘The Indian Express’).

First published on: 29-10-2012 at 12:38:14 pm
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