Salman Khurshid: A profile in courage

Salman Khurshid, the law minister, was until recently a good Muslim to have in government.

Delightful he was, because he wasn’t a greybeard. Different, because he was never hysterical. Dapper, because he didn’t wear a skullcap. Distinctive because he could speak English with a flair only native speakers have. He was in every sense the fair guy. Witty and erudite, just what you would expect from those who went to Oxford.

Now, Delhi is thick with talk that Khurshid’s chips are somewhat down. Those claiming to be in the know tell me that he is being disproportionately blamed for the Congress party’s defeat in the recent Uttar Pradesh elections.

Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan – unless you are forced to adopt it, as in Khurshid’s case. Defeat, it seems, has been almost dumped in his laps. Nobody else wants to touch it even with a barge pole.

The general view in the Congress, I am told, is that Khurshid’s utterances while wooing Muslim voters in UP led to a “communalization” of the party’s electioneering platform and this hurt the party.

An official party probe, led by defence minister AK Antony, is said to have drawn this conclusion too. Read article

Most newspaper reports have reported the purported findings along these lines, despite the probe report being a secret document that has not been made public.

Although covering the Congress is not an easy affair for any reporter, I don’t particularly trust all that is reported about it, especially when it is about high-level affairs.

Its leaders seldom come on record. Its reports are mostly confidential. Its official spokespersons hardly say anything really newsworthy. For example, if you were to ask them today what is there in the report on the UP elections, you may have to contend with an answer that is a veritable conversation-stopper: “The report is before the party leadership. I have nothing more to add or subtract from this.” Hmnn, Congress mumbo jumbo! Therefore, much gossip and hearsay is passed around as news stories.

Yet, if what is being reported about Khurshid is true, then I for one will stand up for him.

Khurshid was one saving grace for his government during the disastrous Anna Hazare negotiations.

He does carry a chip on his shoulder, but is not contemptuous in his attitude. He doesn’t speak arrogantly to journalists, unlike many of his colleagues.

At a time when the judiciary was blowing hot over a fumbling UPA government, Khurshid, after becoming law minister, effectively communicated the government’s position on many tricky issues to the courts.

The results are there to see: the courts have been less harsh in their criticism now, probably because they have a better picture of where things stand.

In Khurshid, the UPA has a presentable Muslim face with a world view for the rest of the Muslim world, where Indian interests are involved. He could be a handy tool in talks with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on many issues, a role the Congress has never explored.

Yet, Khurshid is lonely at the top.

It’s difficult being Muslim. It’s even tougher being a Muslim minister.

At times, you could be accused of not being Muslim enough by your own ilk. And at other times, when you articulate concerns of the community, you instantly stand accused of being regressive.

So, what did Khurshid do or say that went so horribly wrong? He is said to have played to the gallery to secure Muslim votes, which I think he did, by highlighting a 4.5% reservation (in jobs and education) assured for so-called “backward” minorities.

In fact, Khurshid went a step ahead by promising a 9% quota for backward minorities. Give me one good reason why he shouldn’t have?

In other words, my question is what stops a politician from selling a policy-decision taken by his government to the electorate? At the cost of repeating, let me rephrase that once again: in a parliamentary democracy, what prevents a politician from highlighting his party’s affirmative action agenda? The short answer is, nothing.

How “communal” was Khurshid’s quota pledge until the Election Commission took it up, twisted it and heroically played it up? Why did the BJP manisfesto get away with a promise to build a Ram temple yet again?

The human mind works in amazing ways. At the election watchdog’s helm is another Muslim: SY Qureshi.

Muslims in high offices tend to make extra efforts to appear secular. It’s an unconscious reflex action that stems from the ‘burden of being Muslim’. It’s what I call the identity-remission syndrome, i.e. the act of demonstrating the remitting, surrendering, resigning, or giving up one’s social identity to prove neutrality.

So, Qureshi had to hysterically demonstrate his secular credentials by dubbing Khurshid’s utterances communal. A non-Muslim in his place would probably have been less harsh because he would not have felt the need to prove a point. Conversely, in his case, secularism would have meant not being hysterical when it came to Muslim issues.

The other ‘crime’ Khurshid committed was to say certain things about the Batla House shootout, in which alleged terrorists were killed by Delhi police.

Without even going into the credentials of the alleged terrorists killed, are we trying to say that Khurshid, as a Muslim leader, should have done nothing to end the needless ostracism of their families, share their agony and feel the pain?

If these youths were innocent, too bad. If they weren’t, too bad, then too. My gripe is Khurshid should have visited these families long ago and understand their plight, not when their votes mattered.

The bottom line is, if law must take its own coarse, so must human gesture.

We forget BJP leader LK Advani petitioning the PM to ask for a review and fair probe in cases of terror being pursued against certain Hindutva-professing individuals. They too are alleged terrorists.

Lastly, the impression that Khurshid’s campaign strategy hurt the Congress is fallacious. In the UP elections, an extrapolation of the Congress’s final vote share by social groups show that the biggest chunk (18%) came from Muslims. See here

Secondly, it was not Khurshid who paved the way to the Congress’s electoral mess with the 4.5% reservation card. This had been a promise mentioned in the national poll manifesto of the Congress party since the 2004 general election.

Thirdly, if the “quota” promise was bad politics, then why did it work for the Samajwadi Party, which promised a competitive reservation system proportionate to the state’s minority population?

The point is, if group-differentiated rights and affirmative action for minorities are legitimate part of UPA’s policies, what makes raising them before voters illegal?

My own conclusions are pretty clear: when things go wrong, blame it on something that has to do with Muslims. It helps save a lot of other skins.

As for Khurshid, I think he has only courageously come into his own. A few lines from John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage come to mind:

“In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of his conscience — the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men — each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage can define that ingredient — they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.”

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