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Salman Khurshid: India's illustrious new Muslim FM

30 October, 2012

NEW DELHI: Indian premier Manmohan Singh brought seven new faces into his cabinet on Sunday in the biggest reshuffle since his re-election as he tried to revive his party's flagging fortunes before polls due in 2014.

Singh named Salman Khurshid, 59, as a replacement for the 80-year-old foreign minister, SM Krishna, as he attempted to dispel the image of a struggling government, which recently lost its majority. However there was no place at the cabinet table for Rahul Gandhi, the 42-year-old scion of the Gandhi-Nehru political dynasty, who once again turned down an offer to enter government.

Speaking to reporters after a swearing-in ceremony for the new ministers, Singh said he expected his new team to remain in office until the next elections. "Probably this is the last reshuffle," the prime minister said at the presidential palace in New Delhi. "I don't see early elections. Elections will be held in due course."

The Law Ministry went to Ashwani Kumar, a ruling Congress party loyalist. The other newcomers include Rahman Khan who was named minority affairs minister, Ajay Maken who becomes housing minister and Dinsha Patel who is now mines minister.

They will be joined by Pallam Raju, who was promoted to human resources development minister. Harish Rawat was placed in charge of water resources and Chandresh Kumari was appointed culture minister.

Singh named parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Kumar Bansal as new railways minister, a post that became vacant following the pullout of a regional ally, Trinamool, from the ruling coalition in September.

Khurshid is the latest member of India's most illustrious Muslim family to be entrusted with one of the highest offices in the world's largest Hindu-populated country. The 59-year-old was the most eye-catching appointment in a cabinet revamp designed to reinvigorate a government, which has shown distinct signs of fatigue.

As he moved into his new office in New Delhi, Khurshid made clear that he would get straight to work and said he had been briefed by Manmohan Singh to bring fresh thinking to his post.

"I have a lot of homework to do... as I want to take India's foreign policy ahead," he told reporters shortly after he was officially elevated from his post law minister. "In the last few years, foreign policy has vastly changed... We have to do out of box thinking and go beyond theology.

"We have to think of the great opportunities the world offers today," added Khurshid who is India's first Muslim foreign minister in 16 years.

The government has been mired in scandal in recent months, most notably by revelations surrounding the tender process for state-owned coalmines. India's two largest opposition parties scoffed at the shakeup, dubbing it a futile exercise by a scandal-tainted government. "It is a vain exercise by the government to refurbish its image in the face of the corruption charges it is facing," Rajiv Pratap Rudi, spokesman of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, told AFP.

Singh confirmed that he had offered a cabinet post to Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather all served as prime minister, but the offer was declined. "I wanted Rahul Gandhi in government but he wants to strengthen the party," Singh said. Gandhi currently serves as a member of parliament and heads the youth wing of the main ruling Congress party.

End.

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