Congress veteran Pranab Mukherjee has sought to dispel the impression caused by reports in a section of the press that he was a 'reluctant' Minister for External Affairs. He also said his new job would not come in the way of other duties he is often called upon to perform for the government and the party.
The UPA Government's time-tested workhorse who heads several subject-specific Groups of Ministers in the UPA regime was emphatic in his rejection of the suggestion that he was goaded into the Foreign office from the Ministry of Defence.
"No, absolutely not. It is not an authentic report. It is somebody's guesswork. Can anybody show a single statement of mine to prove that I was reluctant," he told the Hindustan Times.
Mukherjee said he did not speak to anyone on his discussions with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi before the October 24 reshuffle about which he was formally told the night before. "How can anybody claim knowledge of what transpired between me, the PM and my Party chief," he asked.
Having returned to the Foreign Office after nearly a decade, Mukherjee, who spent the first week in office getting briefed on key policy questions, is not daunted by the challenges ahead - the Indo-Pak dialogue, the Sino-Indian relations that will be under focus during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao and the Indo-US nuclear deal to be voted by the US senate later this month.
The difference (between now and when he last held the portfolio in 1995-96) is not much. "Our foreign policy is on the proven track," he remarked.
Recalling his conversation with United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she called up to congratulate him on his new assignment, Mukherjee said, "She assured me that the US administration would ensure that the nuclear cooperation agreement is taken up in the Senate?s lame-duck session."
The Minister said it was a trifle early for him to comment on substantive issues on the table in the talks with the US or Pakistan. "Our ties with the US are evolving and they are at a crucial juncture with Pakistan," he noted while refusing to speculate on an early meeting with is Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Kasuri.
The Pak leader might undertake a private visit to India later this month to attend the wedding reception of the daughter of Union Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar. But for his part, Mukherjee restricted himself to underlining the importance of India's ties with all its neighbours: "It is a very important element of our foreign policy"
As External Affairs Minister of the host country, he would visit all the seven member-countries before the April, 2007 SAARC Summit to be chaired by India. "I will do so to invite SAARC Heads of Government and State on behalf of our Prime Minister," Mukherjee said.
So, with his new job entailing a lot of travel, how would he find time to attend to other duties as the PM's senior most colleague? "I will divide the time that I have for all responsibilities---the GoMs, the political and the administrative work. Everything will be done properly," Mukherjee assured.
But he did not attach any special importance to the Ministry he is now heading. Every task has to be taken seriously. I've been the Minister for Finance, Trade, Defence and Foreign Affairs earlier and have enjoyed working in all these ministries.