Mukherjee might emerge stronger
MINISTER: After almost a year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to
get a full time foreign minister to his government. The post had fallen
vacant after Natwar Singh was forced to resign for his alleged
involvement in Iraq's food for oil programme.
Normally such important jobs are not allowed to remain unattended for
so long, but Singh had his own reasons. He was negotiating closer ties
with USA, especially the civilian nuclear deal, and did not want
anything to go wrong with it.
He was not sure whether some other person-as foreign minister-would
show similar care to handle such a tricky and contentious issue as the
civilian nuclear deal with USA. PM Singh put up a stout and articulate
defense to all the objections that had been raised by Indian nuclear
establishment about the deal.
He stonewalled all attempts to change the original deal that he
cobbled with US President George W Bush.
In spite of displaying such care, the deal ran into problems as the
US Senate did not have the time to take up the deal.
It may still get cleared during the lame duck session, but the reason
for Singh to hang on to foreign portfolio not only lost its meaning, but
his obsession with USA was hurting his government's other foreign policy
objectives like constructively engaging a neighbourhood, which seemed to
be in a state of ferment.
During his two and half year rule, Singh has travelled many times to
the West, but never to India's neighbours.
Although he is planning to visit Pakistan in the next few months, he
has to carry out his commitment to make a trip to Sri Lanka and
Singh had refused to attend the SAARC summit in Dhaka for security
reasons and his decision had upset the Bangladeshi leadership.
Commentators have pointed out at the casual manner foreign policy
establishment has been dealing with the neighbourhood.
With a new foreign minister in Pranab Mukherjee a lot of things would
change in foreign office. A major reason being that Mukherjee or "Pranabda"
as he is called is a tough man with a mind of his own.
He is one of the most powerful ministers in the government and Singh
also leans heavily on him to find ways to get out parliamentary or
Mukherjee is the leader of the Lok Sabha, or the lower house of the
parliament. Traditionally the person who leads the Lok Sabha becomes the
Prime Minister, but Mukherjee did not enjoy the favour of Congress
President, Sonia Gandhi, so ended up second best. And that really hurts
What deepens his frustration is that Singh was his Finance Secretary
many years ago when he was a senior finance minister many years ago.
There are reports that Mukherjee was not really keen to become the
foreign minister. He felt that his shift from the defense ministry would
devalue his importance in the government further.
He is believed to have resisted such attempts for a long time till he
gave in after being assured by the Congress President that he would
continue to head all the government committees and his position in the
Be that as it may, Mukherjee is an extremely competent with a sense
There is nothing that he does not know. He heads scores of committees
of ministers that deal with diverse issues. He is also endowed with a
great memory and deep understanding of law that makes him a good
negotiator and a diplomat.
Besides, he has his own views on how India should conduct itself in
world arena especially when it comes to interfacing with the world
powers and its neighbours.
He belongs to the cold war era when Indian government was not really
warm towards USA, but as the foreign minister in the government of P.V.
Narasimha Rao in 1994-1996, he worked closely with Washington.
Also, during his visit as a defense minister last year, he signed a
defense agreement, which the communist parties termed it as a "sellout".
Defense experts felt that the agreement had brought India in US's
orbit. Mukherjee's presence would be welcomed by all those in Washington
who are keen to lend meaning to the strategic relationship between the
Mukherjee has a fair idea of what India needs to do with Pakistan. He
was quite hawkish when he was the defense minister, but sent out
friendly noises when he took over his new job.
During the crisis in Nepal, he was backing the King of Nepal against
the Maoists, but his policy was dumped in favour of the position advised
by foreign office which wanted Indian government to engage with the Left
radicals. Some clever footwork by the government salvaged the situation
in Nepal for the Indian government.
Quite consciously, Indian government has stayed away from meddling in
Sri Lanka. Earlier foreign secretary Shyam Saran had advised Colombo to
follow the Indian model of devolving powers to the regions.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa's recent initiatives to build a national
consensus towards devolution and to participate in talks with the LTTE,
would reinforce the correctness of India's no-hands policy in SL.
Pranab Mukherjee is unlikely to change the content of this policy, at
best he lend some interesting texturing to it. Knowing Mukherjee, he
would do a great job of the foreign ministry portfolio and contrary to
media commentaries; he might emerge stronger after this innings.