|Salman Khurshid with Khaleda Zia in New Delhi on Tuesday. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, Oct. 30: Anointed on Sunday, kick-off on Tuesday, chairperson on Friday. Salman Khurshid has hit the road running as India’s external affairs minister.
The 59-year-old, who assumed charge on October 28, has a busy calendar ahead, with his first official bilateral meeting with Iran foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi scheduled on Friday on the sidelines of the 12th ministerial meeting of the Indian Ocean Rim — Association for Regional Cooperation which he will chair.
Officials said Khurshid has been following a punishing schedule, including briefings by joint secretaries, that the minister has described as a “steep learning curve”.
His first meeting, though not strictly bilateral, was with Bangladesh Opposition leader Khaleda Zia today.
Zia, on a four-day visit to India, had nearly an hour-long meeting with Khurshid where “all bilateral issues of mutual concern, including sharing of river waters, border management, tackling insurgent groups and trade” were discussed.
The real test, however, should begin from Friday, when Khurshid chairs the ministerial meeting of the 19-member IOC-Arc that India is hosting.
As many as eight foreign ministers and nine junior ministers from the IOC-Arc member countries will attend the meet. They include Iran’s Salehi and the foreign ministers of Kenya, Madagascar, Oman, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Tanzania, Yemen and Australia.
MEA officials expect Khurshid’s meeting with Salehi to be crucial. Delhi has so far tried to strike a balance between its relations with Tehran and the West. South Block bureaucrats expect Khurshid to perform the trapeze act between Iran and Nato ally Australia with his usual finesse.
The challenge before Khurshid, sources in the ministry of external affairs (MEA) said, would be to push the other members to agree with India’s plans to invigorate what has till now in its 15-year history been a largely inactive forum. MEA secretary Sudhir Vyas today conceded that the IOC-Arc should have accomplished more than what it has.
India has identified six priority areas for the grouping, the chief among them being co-operation on maritime security as all member states border the Indian Ocean.
After the IOC-Arc meet, Khurshid will leave for Laos on November 5 for a two-day Asia Europe Meeting (Asem). The 27-member European Union and European Commission will meet ministers from 16 Asian countries, representatives from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Australia, New Zealand and Russia at Asem.
Sources said the number of congratulatory messages that Khurshid has received from his counterparts from across the world, including Russia, Turkey, Bangladesh, Nepal, the UK and Oman, was evidence of his popularity.
The sources termed his meeting with Zia significant. The Bangladesh leader, known to be an India-baiter, later said her visit and discussions with Indian leaders marked a new beginning. “Let’s not look back in the rear-view mirror,” the former Prime Minister said.