By Indo Asian News Service,Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Pranab Mukherjee is India's new foreign minister while A.K. Antony replaces him as defence minister. These changes were announced after a minor shuffle of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's ministerial council Tuesday.
Mukherjee, who held the defence portfolio since the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was formed on May 22, 2004, has been given charge of the external affairs ministry that has been lying vacant since November.
Antony – along with Jay Prakash Narayan Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and M.H. Gowda Ambareesh of Congress – were administered the oath of office and secrecy at a business-like ceremony in the Ashoka Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan here by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.
Present at the oath-taking ceremony were Congress president Sonia Gandhi, former prime minister I.K. Gujral and Leader of Opposition L.K. Advani.
While Antony will have cabinet rank, the other two took oath as ministers of state in the second reshuffle by Manmohan Singh this calendar year. The previous one on Jan 29 saw the induction of 22 new faces.
Mukherjee becomes the foreign minister 11 months after former incumbent K. Natwar Singh exited after being named in Iraq's oil-for-food payoffs.
The veteran West Bengal politician's shift comes after months of speculation as to who would take on the onerous job at South Block that was being handled by the prime minister himself.
It was rumoured that Mukherjee, who at 71 is the most experienced member of the cabinet, was reluctant to move because of the rigours of the job and the frequent travelling it entailed.
He had been the external affair minister in the government of former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1995-96 and has handled portfolios such as finance and commerce.
Antony is returning to the cabinet after 12 years and is one of the few politicians in contemporary India who have a spotless image. He has been chief minister of Kerala thrice.
Yadav – who quit as minister of state for water resources in November last year following charges that he illegally got his brother released from police custody – gets back his portfolio, while Ambareesh has been named the minister of state for information and broadcasting.
The expanded council of ministers – excluding the prime minister – comprises 33 cabinet ministers, seven ministers of state with independent charge and 39 ministers of state.
The minor shuffle also saw Oscar Fernandes, hitherto without a portfolio, given the charge of labour ministry, which fell vacant after K. Chandrasekhara Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) quit the ruling coalition in August.
But unlike Rao, who was a cabinet minister, Fernandes is minister of state with independent charge.