PRANAB MUKHERJEE has said he is not a "reluctant" external affairs minister, an impression given by reports in a section of the press. The senior Congress leader 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 his party.
Mukherjee, who heads several Groups of Ministers, 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. Can anybody show me a single statement of mine to prove that I was reluctant," he told Hindustan Times.
Mukherjee said he did not speak to anyone about his discussions with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi before the October 24 reshuffle. He was formally informed about the reshuffle 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 his first week in office getting himself briefed on key policy questions, is not daunted by the challenges ahead. The India-Pakistan dialogue, the Sino-Indian relations that will be under focus during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao and the India-US nuclear deal to be voted upon by the US senate later this month are among the tasks in hand.
"The difference (between the present, and when he last held the portfolio in 1995-96) is not much. Our foreign policy is on the proven track," he said.
He said it was a bit 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 said while refusing to speculate on an early meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Khurshid Kasuri. Kasuri might pay a private visit to India later this month to attend the wedding reception of the daughter of Union minister Mani Shankar Aiyar.
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…." he said. Before the April 2007 SAARC Summit to be chaired by India, he will visit all the seven member-countries. "I will do so to invite SAARC heads of government on behalf of our prime minister," he said.
So, with his new job demanding a lot of travel, would he find time to attend to his other duties as the PM's seniormost colleague? "I will divide the time that I have for all my responsibilities -- the GoMs, the political and the administrative work. Everything will be done properly," Mukherjee said.