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Pranab favourite for foreign minister's post

Mukherjee, the leader of the Lok Sabha, is the most experienced of all ministers amid speculation on Natwar's successor.

india Updated: Jul 21, 2006 10:04 IST

Pranab Mukherjee, P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal... speculation is rife over who could be India's external affairs minister after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said this week that the appointment could happen "any time".

Defence Minister Mukherjee heads the list of the names doing the rounds to succeed K Natwar Singh - who had to quit after his name figured in the UN's Volcker report that probed corruption in the Oil-for-Food programme in Iraq.

Manmohan Singh told reporters on his way back from St Petersburg after attending the G8 summit that there would be a foreign minister soon.

Mukherjee, the leader of the Lok Sabha, is the most experienced of all ministers and was external affairs minister under prime minister PV Narasimha Rao, point out Congress party insiders.

But there were other contenders too. Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal is another possible contender for the coveted office in South Block.

"He is articulate, well aware of the policies and his suave image would make him a good aspirant for the post," a senior Congress leader said.

Finance Minister P Chidambaram's name is also in circulation.

South Block and the Congress party office at 24 Akbar Road, however, are abuzz with other names.

According to some leaders, Maharashtra Governor SM Krishna, who has been keen to return to active politics, and Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, who is believed to be close to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, are also interested in the job.

Neither of them was available for comment.

The external affairs portfolio has been handled by the prime minister since Natwar Singh quit in December 2005 following allegations that he benefited from the UN's Oil-for-Food programme in Iraq.

Although several senior leaders were pushing themselves for the post and probable successors kept cropping up in the last six months, the sensitivity of the India-US nuclear deal appeared to have forced Manmohan Singh to keep the portfolio for himself.

"He was keen to hand over the portfolio to a senior leader, but the prime minister appeared to be waiting for the Indo-US nuclear deal to be cleared by the US," said a senior minister.

His work in the external affairs ministry was being shared between the two ministers of state - Anand Sharma and E Ahamed.

The Bush administration is confident that Congress would pass the deal before it goes into recess on Aug 4.

Sources in the government said there could be a cabinet reshuffle in the near future as the prime minister was not "very happy" with the performance of some senior ministers.

There has been a strong campaign in the media against the performance of Home Minister Shivraj Patil. "Be it Maoist rebellion in states, or Jammu and Kashmir affairs or terrorist attacks, our government's policies on internal security have completely failed," a senior Congress leader alleged.

Both Patil and National Security Advisor MK Narayanan came under attack after a series of explosions in Srinagar and Mumbai last week killed more than 200 and injured hundreds.

A section of Congress leaders and many of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) partners are expected to ask for a change in North Block (that houses the home ministry) after intelligence agencies failed to get prior intimation about the blasts.