Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may go for a long-pending cabinet shake-up by the end of this month, amid indications that a reluctant Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee has agreed to take charge of the foreign ministry, informed sources said.
Mukherjee, whom both Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi apparently want as the new external affairs minister, has apparently agreed to shift to the other side of the South Block that houses the defence and foreign ministries besides the Prime Minister's Office.
"Although he was not very happy, Mukherjee had to finally say 'yes' to Soniaji as she and the prime minister found him the right choice as foreign minister," a highly placed party source said.
"They feel that an experienced foreign minister is essential at a time like this," the source added. Mukherjee was foreign minister in the government of PV Narasimha Rao as well.
Mukherjee, the virtual no 2 in the Manmohan Singh cabinet, he is the leader of the house in the Lok Sabha, presides over cabinet meetings in the absence of the prime minister and heads several Groups of Ministers (GoMs) that take vital decisions, was apparently very unwilling to move out of the defence ministry, sources said.
"He did not like the idea of travelling too much and being away from the country for long durations. He likes to be in Parliament and wants to continue to head GoMs. As foreign minister that would not be possible always," the source said.
The sources said a cabinet reshuffle would take place this month itself.
Manmohan Singh is himself now the foreign minister, assisted by two ministers of state: Anand Sharma and E Ahamed.
He took over the external affairs ministry portfolio after K Natwar Singh exited in December for his links to Iraq's oil-for-food scam.
The labour ministry does not have a cabinet minister either since K Chandrasekhara Rao quit the ruling coalition in August. Rao's colleague A Narendra has also quit as minister of state for rural development.
Congress sources said Maharashtra Governor and former Karnataka chief minister SM Krishna could be inducted into the cabinet.
There have been speculations about a new foreign minister for some time now. And the grapevine has had Ministers of State Anand Sharma and Kapil Sibal as aspirants for the foreign minister's job.
In mid-July, on his way back from St Petersburg, Manmohan Singh told reporters that there would be a new foreign minister "soon".
Again in August, at a dinner he hosted for his colleagues, he hinted at an imminent cabinet reshuffle. Asked who would represent India at the UN General Assembly session in September, he replied: "The new foreign minister."
Mukherjee was asked to head the Indian delegation to the UN.
The prime minister also had told reporters while flying to Brazil on Sep 11 that he would name a new foreign minister after his return from the NAM summit in Havana.
And on his way home from Britain and Finland Oct 14, Manmohan Singh again said: "You will have a full-fledged foreign minister. You won't have to wait for too long."