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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2967

Mukherjee as Foreign Minister: Political Heavy Weight to political wilderness?

P R Kumaraswamy - Exclusive to Asian Tribune

After nearly a year, India at last got a Foreign Minister in the form of veteran Congress leader Pranab Kumar Mukherjee. It would have taken considerable persuasion on the part of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to make Defence Minister agreeing to move to the External Affair Ministry.

His reluctance was both natural and inevitable. Like many other countries in the world, foreign policy has never been a major agenda in India. The foreign policy debates have been dominated by a small but vocal segment of intelligentsia, most of them based in the capital. The rest of the teaming millions are oblivious of the developments in far off lands. Naturally, professional politicians, especially those with larger ambitions, rarely envisage any interest in the foreign office.

Thus, since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru the Foreign Ministry is not considered a coveted position in the cabinet. During every cabinet formation, the tussle has always been for powerful ministries like Home, Finance and Defence. It is not accidental that most Prime Ministers also functioned as India's Foreign Ministers. Even when senior cabinet colleagues looked after the Ministry, sensitive issues pertaining to foreign policy has always been the prerogative of the Prime Ministers.

In moving Mukherjee to this position, Manmohan Singh sought to achieve some coherence in foreign policy.


Mukherjee looking after the Foreign Ministry would free Manmohan Singh from running the day-to-day affairs. Partly because of this problem, in recent months the Indian Prime Minister has become a frequent flyer. His periodic absence from India could be partly mitigated by the Mukherjee’s new responsibility.

Two, since the UPA came to power in 2004, some of Singh’s cabinet colleagues were at odds with the Prime Minister’s worldview. His fondness for closer ties with Washington did not enjoy the unanimous support of the cabinet. The position of former Foreign Minister Natwar Singh and current Panchayat Raj Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar over the government’s policy towards Iran could be cited as an example. There is a widespread belief that Natwar Singh was even kept out of loop when India decided to vote against Iran at the IAEA. Likewise, with his diplomatic background, Aiyar even tried to run a parallel foreign policy to pursue his energy diplomacy.

There are no indications that such differences exist between the Prime Minister and his new Foreign Minister. The manner in which Mukherjee promoted closer cooperation with the Pentagon underscore that both share a common towards promoting the Indo-US ties.

Moreover as a political heavy weight, his cabinet colleagues would be weary of stepping on to his toes on foreign policy matter as happened during the tenure of Natwar Singh.

At the same time, Mukherjee’s reluctance to move to the South Block was also understandable.

Why the reluctance?

One, despite his long political career and diverse experience, Mukherjee's tenure at the foreign office has been rather brief. He was one of the three Foreign Ministers who served under Narasimha Rao when the foreign policy remained firmly under the control of the Prime Minister. That Manmohan Singh could function without a full-fledged foreign minister for over 11 months indicates that there was no urgency. While it was good that the country has a regular foreign minister, this status quo could have continued without much difficulty. This means that Mukherjee is taking over a Ministry, which was functioning without much difficulty. So long as the broad foreign policy guidelines are available, professional diplomats could run the ministry with little help or interference from the few junior ministers. In short, while they would be happy to have a cabinet minister, the foreign office could also function without one.

Two, the media hype over his appointment does not hide that there is little need or scope for innovation. Mukherjee would not be able make any difference to some of the principle issues that dominate the current Indian foreign policy agenda. On issues like closer ties with the US, need to engage with Pakistan or improve political relations there will not be any shifts. In some of these issues, the Defence Ministry could add substance to political understanding worked out by the Foreign Office. He would be carrying out the policies set in motion by the Prime Minister and pursued by the mandarins during the absence of a minister.

Three, as External Affairs Minister Mukherjee would have to undertake a lot of overseas travelling. In recent months due to the absence of the Foreign Minister, Mukherjee has emerged as a key interlocutor with the great powers including China and represented the country at the annual session of the UN General Assembly. This would only increase considerably. On the flip side, this would also mean he would have far less time for internal developments and nurturing his political constituency.

Since taking office earlier this month, the new Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon has more or less settled down. Those who were disappointed at his elevation have either left the service or were suitably accommodated elsewhere. Some of the key positions within the Ministry are either filled or in the process of being filled.

As a professional, he would not easily agree to party functionaries being posted abroad as diplomats. Some of the recent political appointees like Aneil Matherani, Natwar Singh’s choice for Croatia, only brought embarrassment. These would mean that there is little scope for Mukherjee to bring about any substantial changes at the organizational level.

Above all, the Foreign Ministry offers far less scope for political patronage, a must for all politicians. Like his predecessor Natwar Singh, Mukherjee might go for an advisory board saddled with his favourites and cronies. Beyond that, there is little scope for bestowing brownie points for loyalty. This in political terms would mean less scope for building and consolidating support base.

In short, a political heavy weight running a ministry that lack political power.


Seen in this overall context, it is possible to interpret Mukherjee’s shift as a demotion. As a seasoned troubleshooter, his hands are full with mired problems facing the government, party and ruling coalition. With his prime ministerial ambitions, he would have to take care of his support base in West Bengal.

Above all the Defence Ministry gave him considerable media coverage, scope for extensive domestic travel and financial clout with the industry. As the most conservative branch of the establishment, the Defence Ministry also shielded him from political controversies.

Mukherjee will soon miss all these at his new abode.

P R Kumaraswamy teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

- Asian Tribune -

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