PM unlikely to keep foreign ministry portfolio

New Delhi, Nov 16 | Updated: Nov 17 2005, 05:30am hrs
Considering the importance of the external affairs ministry along with protocol hurdles that could arise if he handled it himself, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears to have decided not to keep the portfolio with himself, and instead hand it as additional charge to a senior colleagues.

Government sources on Wednesday indicated that defence minister Pranab Mukherjee might be the likely choice to take temporary charge of the ministry, that has gained in importance and significance in the last two decades.

While prime ministers in the past have handled the portfolio, sources pointed out it was a difficult task in the present day for the PM to oversee day-to-day affairs, notwithstanding a competent team in the ministry. Foreign ministers of some important countries which had scheduled visits to New Delhi had already cancelled them following Mr Singhs exit from the external affairs ministry. These included the Belgian foreign minister as well as the South African foreign minister.

It was pointed out to Manmohan Singh, sources said, that protocol hurdles were most likely to crop up in case of lengthy absence of a foreign minister, since the PM could not be expected to play the role on a daily basis. Additionally, the two ministers of state in the external affairs ministry were not senior enough to take control of sensitive assignments. According to sources, the Prime Minister had also toyed with the suggestion of supplementing the two MoS with a third person with adequate seniority.

However, with uncertainty prevailing over the long-pending reshuffle of the Union Cabinet, sources pointed out that giving additional charge to a senior minister like Pranab Mukherjee was the likely solution for the time being. Mr Mukherjee has held the portfolio earlier and is well versed with the nuances of diplomacy.

Sections in the party, though, indicated that a medium reshuffle-cum-expansion could be possible either this weekend. Tentative dates that were talked about were November 18 or 19, just ahead of the winter session of Parliament. Party circles indicated that the exercise could be restricted to re-induction of JMM chief Shibu Soren, besides some other senior party leaders including Ambika Soni, Vyalar Ravi, Giridhar Gomang and GK Wasan. The PM had another round of consultations with party chief Sonia Gandhi on Tuesday night.There are over half-a-dozen vacancies in the government created by the death of Sunil Dutt, resignation of Jagdish Tytler, shifting of Ghulam Nabi Azad to J&K and making K Rehman Khan deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha.