The year-long suspense over the choice of a new foreign minister is over. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assigned his senior most colleague Pranab Mukherjee, the coveted job. The portfolio had been held by the Prime Minister himself since November 2005, when K Natwar Singh resigned following his involvement in the Volcker report controversy.
Mukherjee takes charge amidst a host of foreign policy challenges. In his first comments after being sworn in, he focused on the Indo-US nuclear deal. "I am hopeful that it will go through as it has bi-partisan support. The United States administration has assured us they will try their best to get it through," he stated.
Three-time Kerala chief minister AK Antony, who served in PV Narsimha Rao's cabinet over a decade ago, replaces Mukherjee in the ministry of defence. "It is a challenge. I will try to rise to it with full dedication and honesty with the help of all my colleagues," said the soft-spoken leader, who is part of the Congress' core policy-making group.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal's (RJD) Jai Prakash Narayan Yadav and Congress MP from Karnataka, MH Ambareesh, were also sworn in as ministers of state with portfolios of Water Resources and Information and Broadcasting respectively. Yadav's return to the Cabinet after being forced out in the face of a police case lodged against him during the Bihar Assembly elections raises some uncomfortable questions about the compulsions of coalition politics. Ambareesh, a former film star, belonging to the Vokkaliga caste, has clearly been taken on board to challenge HD Deve Gowda's ruling Janata Dal (Secular) in its Vokkaliga stronghold of Karnataka's Mandya district.
A special focus on the South was evident in the changes made. The labour ministry has also gone to Karnataka's Oscar Fernandes, who is the Congress's archetypal organisation man. Her had been a minister without portfolio since the last reshuffle in January.
Fernandes has been given independent charge of labour. Telegana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) chief K Chandrasekhara Rao was Labour minister with full Cabinet rank till his party walked out of the UPA over the issue of a separate Telangana state carved out of Andhra Pradesh.
Orissa's Chandra Sekhar Sahu has been shifted from Labour to Rural Development, but remains a minister of state. Having been asked to make way for Murli Deora in the petroleum ministry in January, Mani Shankar Aiyar has some reason to rejoice; he has been given additional charge of the Northeastern region besides Panchayati Raj and Youth Affairs and Sports.
Sonia Gandhi remarks after the swearing-in at Rashtrapati Bhavan also made it clear that the reshuffle had set the stage for the long-awaited changes on the organisation side. Confirming that Antony had not been very keen to join the government, the Congress president said she would have "difficulties" in finding a replacement for Fernandes, who, as the minister without portfolio, had immersed himself in party work.
For his part, Mukherjee is likely to settle down quickly in the foreign office where he had earlier served under Narsimha Rao in 1995-96. He brings no ideological baggage to the sensitive ministry that has, in recent months, been often caught in the crossfire between the Left parties and those supportive of India's close ties with the US.
But Mukherjee's transfer to another wing of the South Block is confounding. The job he now has will involve extensive travel, restricting somewhat his role in the many other tasks he has been performing for the party and the government as the convenor of dozens of subject-specific ministerial groups.
The defence portfolio that Mukherjee held was just a fraction of his responsibilities. As leader of the Lok Sabha, he has been playing a central role in vetting the government's business, besides liaisoning with the Opposition and the allies. His long innings as a parliamentarian of considerable gravitas also saw him leading the treasury's charge in major debates.
So will Mukherjee shed some of the hats he has so effortlessly worn? "A foreign minister is not always travelling abroad," he reasoned. The message obviously was that the new portfolio would not tell on the multifarious roles that he has been performing for the government and the party.