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OffStumped For All Things Right of Center, Bringing a Right of Centre Reality Check to Indian Politics, News Media Reporting and Opinion through Blogs and Podcasts.
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Pranab Mukherjee will take charge as the country’s External Affairs Minister from Wednesday. Pranab is the virtual number two in the government after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on account of being the Leader of the Lok Sabha. Mukherjee, held the foreign minister’s portfolio for a little more than a year in 1995-96, as well as those of finance and trade among others in the past. The foreign minister’s post has remained vacant for nearly a year now since Natwar Singh quit last November after he was named in an independent report into irregularities in the United Nations’ oil-for-food programme for Iraq. With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh effecting a minor cabinet reshuffle moving Mr. Mukherjee from Defense over to External Affairs the media abuzz with speculation on what kind of a foreign minister Mr. Mukherjee will make.

The gushing editorials and op-ed columns that have hit the wires since last night’s cabinet reshuffle would have us beliebe that Mr. Mukherjee was the best and brightest thing to have ever happened to Indian Foriegn Policy. It is a different matter that until 48 hours ago when the speculation really started nobody in the media even remotely suggested Mr. Mukherjee lay claim to the External Affairs Ministry. So the media’s credibility on speculating on Mr. Mukherjee’s likely performance is highly questionable. Offstumped takes a critical look at Pranab Mukherjee’s record to make some judgement on this critical question.

Mr Mukherjee, 70-years-old, has held cabinet posts under three different prime ministers. It must be noted that until 2004 Pranab Mukherjee never won a Lok Sabha election so in that respect he is a tad better than Manmohan Singh who is yet to win an election. Pranab Mukherjee’s claim to fame clearly is his loyalty to Sonia Gandhi and his relative seniority amongst the rag tag non-performers that make up the UPA cabinet, Chidambaram excepted. Most of media eulogies on his aassumption of the Foreign Office have focused on how senior he was but there is not even one news media report that endorsed his appointment either on the basis of his record in office as the Defence Minister or on the basis of specific accomplishments from his previous stints. In fact veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar speaking to Reuters was scathing in his comments on Mukherjee’s record.

“Experience of different fields helps although Mukherjee did not exactly set the Ganges on fire the last time he was foreign minister,”

So what we have here folks is a reminder on how much rock bottom the Nation of a Billion has hit in finding appropriate talent to lay claim to leadership positions in our National Government. A mediocre survivor who has managed to get his loyalties right becomes the best suited to don the mantle of Foreign Minister.  Not by virtue of accomplishment but by default on account of bankruptcy of suitable talent within the ruling Congress UPA dispensation. In fact the only noteworthy action by Mukherjee in 2004 was to probe defence deals.

Mukherjee’s most recent record as Defense Minister is worth analysing to draw a judgement on his recent performance.

First a note on Pranab Mukherjee’s resume on display on the Ministry of Defence website mod.nic.in. The resume claims that Pranab Mukherjee’s leadership in the Finance Ministry earned India the distinction of not withdrawing the last installment of an IMF loan in the 1980s. It is being made out that Mr. Mukherjee with his financial acumen somehow made this happen. The facts of the matter are however quite different and it is a reflection of how the high on titles low on accomplishment resume of Pranab Mukherjee has been embellished. The New York Times on March 19th 1984 carried an article on the state of the Indian economy.

And such is the country’s economic stability, and so solid is its financial condition, that it has recently been able to return $1 billion of unused loans to the International Monetary Fund. That is almost unheard of for a developing country of the third world.

Finally, with what the economic survey called ”deep satisfaction,” the Government cited its decision to forgo the latest installment of an I.M.F. loan that it arranged in 1980 to cushion the shock of oil-price increases. The Government was able to do this because India’s oil exploration in an Arabian Sea field called the Bombay High, has pushed domestic oil production from 10.5 million metric tons in 1980-81 to more than 26 million tons now.

So it was not Pranab Mukherjee’s acumen as finance minister but the fact that India got lucky on Bombay High and was able to cushion the economy from oil price increases that helped forgo the IMF Loan. A further critical look at Mukherjee’s record as Defence Minister reveals barely any new policy initiatives during 2004. 2005 was not anymore distinguishing either with Mukherjee’s notable actions being not giving a clean chit to George Fernandes on defence deals. 2006 was an improvement over the previous 2 years with the unveiling of the new defense procurement policy and private participation in Defense R&D. One is yet to see however the results of the new policy and in the time gone by all we hear are the abysmal state of affairs with the ageing squadrons in the IAF, the canning of Trishul and ISI infiltration into the Army. The fact that he has not been able to effect a strategic shift in our defence policy by creating an integrated services structure with a Chief of Defence Services, CDS, will highlight his mediocre stint as Defence Minister.

Offstumped Bottomline: India desperately needed a foreign minister. It finally has one, if not for talent, for more years in Governance. Pranab Mukherjee’s resume is thin on accomplishment and heavy on loyalties. He has spent more time taking on the BJP and NDA in Lok Sabha as its leader than in shaping the strategy to secure the nation.He is clearly not the man to propel Indian Foreign Policy in the 21st Century. We have set a very low bar on performance for our leaders where even the mediocre become a refreshingly welcome option.

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