I am a true servant of the Gandhi family, exclaimed SK Shinde upon becoming India's home minister last autumn. As if an affirmation of servitude was not enough, he went on to add that corruption plaguing his government would soon fade from public memory.
Gaffe after embarrassing gaffe follows in his wake. During his dismal previous tenure as power minister, hundreds of millions groped in the dark for days. Instead of losing his job, Shinde was elevated to Home, despite the reported protestations of his titular boss, Manmohan Singh.
Sardar Patel, India's first home minister, made the ministry a waiting room for prime ministerial-aspirants. Some even saw the home minister, with his control of the internal security and intelligence apparatus, as the de facto ruler of the country. Ever since, if premiership gave the slip, Home would be where the heart was. On the flip side, prime ministers have been chary of strong home ministers, often placing cronies in the post.
In India today the cabinet is chosen around Sonia Gandhi's dinner table rather than by the prime minister. But Shinde's promotion was greeted by sticker shock. Would the country be secure in the hands of someone whose main calling was that of a 'true servant', especially when his predecessor P Chidambaram had calmed a jittery nation somewhat after 26/11?
Shinde has only recently been left home alone. In Pakistan, Rehman Malik has been bumbling around for close to five years. Prime ministers come and go, but Malik, whose fealty to Zardari is unbounded, stays put. Admittedly, the interior minister in Pakistan carries less clout than in India, but the country's security still depends upon him. Malik reveals no plan for pacifying his country, except by displaying his sartorial elegance, and a tuft of hair that appears to be the palpable remnants of a botched transplant.
Right before Pakistan's world cup cricket match against India in 2011, Malik riled his players by warning them to refrain from match-fixing. How better to motivate your own team. No wonder it spilled so many catches. Whose bright idea was it to send someone with such finesse to India to better relations?
While there, he let loose one cannon after another. He reiterated that there was no substantive evidence against Hafiz Saeed, a man toxic to many Indians for his alleged role in 26/11. Malik even equated 26/11 with the Babri Masjid demolition, which all said and done is India's internal matter. Instead of emerging as the genial host, Shinde was left with egg all over his face.
Malik's visit came close to torpedoing the impending India-Pakistan cricket series. Mercifully the moment passed, but he left behind a Shinde infected by the fever of intemperance. Shinde went on to accuse the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party of training terrorists who bombed the Samjhauta Express, killing a number of Pakistanis. Saffron terror may very likely be at cause, with Indian authorities having arrested and charged a number of Hindus. Pakistan is not happy with the investigation, but it must be noted that no commensurate action has been taken in Pakistan for 26/11.
While expression is freewheeling in both Pakistan and India, Shinde should have realized that his statement would give a field day to India-baiters in Pakistan like Hafiz Saeed, Shireen Mazari, and Hamid Gul. And did they gloat. Talk of the pot calling the kettle black.
Soon after, Malik was feted at India's Republic Day function in Islamabad. Shah Rukh Khan had just written an article about himself. As is his wont, he rambled on and on, holding forth on all sorts of personal matters. About the love that he receives in India mixed with the occasional taunt for being a Muslim. Khan's interviews can be discursive monologues, often so indecipherable that even his wife has reportedly warned him about getting misconstrued.
But Malik chose India's prime day to admonish it to take care of Khan. Not to be outdone, Hafiz Saeed pleaded with Khan to move to Pakistan. Khan's Indian detractors could not have hoped for a better denouement. Sure, the Nehru-Liaquat Pact of 1950 enjoins upon each country to protect its minorities. But India bristles when Pakistan raises its voice against Muslims getting killed in Gujarat and Kashmir. Pakistan, where the minority population is much lower than in India, will not countenance any objection to atrocities against Hindus. It still blames India for its 1971 vivisection, while glossing over its vicious treatment of East Pakistani Hindus then.
Malik's statement invited a stern riposte from India, and from Khan himself. Malik could take a tip or two from his cricketers, who he suspects of being cheats. They conduct themselves with dignity whenever they are in India. Indian cricketers likewise behave with decorum in Pakistan. And both teams get along well, leaving behind the acrimony of years past, prompting many retired players to rue that the sting has gone out of their encounters.
But cricketers can only serve as band-aids. France's former prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, said that war is too important to be left to the generals. So too diplomacy must be left to experts, not clods. And should not the judgement of those who appointed Shinde and Malik be called into question? If all they want to do is fill key positions with lackeys, are they themselves fit to rule?