As reshuffles go, Tuesday’s exercise was a small one, aimed at filling the vacancies in the Union Council of Ministers. Yet, it was not unimportant. The absence of an External Affairs Minister has been bad for the country. While the Prime Minister and his team have done a commendable job with the Indo-US nuclear deal, many other areas of foreign policy have suffered for want of a full-time senior minister. The EAM is typically involved in leading scores of bilateral consultations, and is the top representative of the country in multilateral meetings. In every direction of India’s immediate neighbourhood — Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan — relations are at a crisis level and require constant attention by a senior minister who is also a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security.
Pranab Mukherjee, the new minister, comes with a breadth of experience and the trust of the Prime Minister and the Congress President. He will, therefore, boost the ability of the government to deal with pressing foreign policy issues. The immediate impact could well be on relations with Pakistan, where the peace process has perceptibly slowed down. Besides the joint mechanism on terrorism, the recent India-Pakistan summit in Havana has pinpointed Siachen and Sir Creek issues as those amenable to quick solutions.
AK Antony’s appointment is related to Mr Mukherjee’s departure to the External Affairs Ministry. Yet, the surprise choice of ‘Mr Clean’ as Defence Minister seems a carefully considered one. Among the priority tasks before the new minister is to create a procurement system that will be free of the almost automatic taint that attaches itself to any major weapons system buy that India makes. Shifting Oscar Fernandes to the Labour Ministry, too, is because of a vacancy, but also is the outcome of careful thought. Mr Fernandes has the trust of Sonia Gandhi and his appointment to the new portfolio could presage changes in a sector which has, until now, held out against reform. There are two other appointments and some adjustments in portfolios, indicating that by and large the UPA government does not see the need for a larger exercise at this juncture.