Salman Khurshid has for some time been the target of remarks like “dhoonda Musalman, mil gaya Salman”. This illustrates the crisis of the liberal Muslim in India today, caught between the conservative leadership of the community that demands total religious conformity and the just-under-the-skin communalism of the seemingly liberal Hindu.
Khurshid cannot have found the path easy—he notes as much with wry humour in his play, The Sons of Babar, which traces the evolution of India as we know it through the eyes of a young man’s imagined conversations with Bahadurshah Zafar in the confusing days after the demolition of the Babari Masjid.
But the recent controversy—the Election Commission asserted that Khurshid had violated the model code of conduct by promising a nine per cent sub quota to the minorities within the existing 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) while an election was on—also illustrates the schizoid nature of politics. The Congress manifesto mentions this promise and Khurshid’s critics say he was offering a bribe to the Muslims. The Election Commission’s ruling was so harsh that Khurshid had no option but to apologise. But now, Congress Minister Beni prasad Verma has offered Muslims the same sop. EC has not taken note of it yet. Nor has the Bharatiya Janata Party that was so quick to criticise Khurshid.
Khurshid’s statement may or may not spell a turning point in the election which is crucial for the Congress. In 2009, Rahul Gandhi put his all into the Lok Sabha election campaign. The Congress got 21 seats. But public memory is short. In 2004, though the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) stormed India to form a coalition government at the centre with support from the left parties, its performance in Uttar Pradesh was dismal. In the Lok Sabha election, in terms of assembly constituencies, the Congress lost its deposit in 48 Lok Sabha constituencies and got nine Lok Sabha seats out of 80.
After the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, former foreign secretary SK Singh asked Congress President Sonia Gandhi at The Hindustan Times Leadership Summit what she was going to do about her party in UP. “I find it dismal...I have been disappointed by the situation of the Congress party in UP. I have been thinking day and night as to what can be done in the state, which is so vital to the Congress party,” said Gandhi. The very next evening, Jagdambika Pal was dismissed from the presidentship of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee (UPCC). A day later, Salman Khurshid was appointed PCC chief for the second time.
When he went as PCC chief in 1998, Khurshid had behind him stints as minister of state for commerce and external affairs. He had also represented Farrukhabad in the Lok Sabha. But he needed to establish himself as a leader beyond his parliamentary constituency, as someone whose word counted for something in UP. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati’s organisational strength and sectarian appeal had made huge inroads into the Congress’s Dalit and Muslim base. The party had no profile in UP, no USP, nothing, actually, not even a revival plan.
Khurshid replaced Jitendra Prasada, at that time, one of his closest friends. He took on the job expecting his friends to help him but unfortunately, many of them viewed him as a potential threat. Congress leaders in UP bragged that he was ‘hamara bachcha’ and that they could get him to do as they liked. Khurshid, they said, was coming from the five-star culture (Delhi Public School, St Stephen’s College, Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn), so he didn’t really know UP. “But under our guidance....”
Khurshid was innocent, floundering in a sea of cunning in Lucknow. He found himself undermined from the start. He would call a public meeting and find that overnight another meeting had been organised elsewhere—in Rampur or Shahjahanpur—so he would get no party help.
All this taught Khurshid the importance of building the organisation. His second stint as PCC chief was shorter. While in 2004, he was one of the most important intellectual inputters in the party’s famous aam aadmi campaign, in 2007 he was replaced by Rita Bahuguna Joshi as PCC chief. This was fortuitous because after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the party found him unburdened by any post and made him a cabinet minister.
Soon Khurshid became an important sounding board for the party, especially since he was now part of the government. He was asked to become a member of the Group of Ministers on media, the core of the government which was authorised to clarify, correct, and provide information on government moves, both on-and-off-the record. He was an important negotiator between the Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption and the government during the stand-off at Ramleela Maidan, and his legal expertise was put to good use in drafting a Lok Pal Bill that was both consistent with the constitution and acceptable to the IAC.
Few know that Khurshid was important behind-the-scenes-actor in the controversy over the age of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) VK Singh, and had actually prepared a draft of a letter that would have pulled both the COAS and government back from the brink.
Khurshid is known to be a witty but courteous politician. He loves animals (few know that his Delhi home is a virtual menagerie of birds, rabbits, dogs, cows and cats—no sick animal is ever turned away). On the current quota issue, Khurshid has found a powerful backer—Priyanka Vadra —much to the envy of his colleagues. Only the outcome of the election will prove whether it was a bribe.