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Mukherjee might emerge stronger

FOREIGN 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 Bangladesh too.

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 political logjams.

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 Mukherjee.

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 Lok Sabha.

Be that as it may, Mukherjee is an extremely competent with a sense of history.

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 two countries.

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.


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Sri Lanka

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