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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 46

One Year of Pranab Mukherjee’s Proactive Foreign Policy

Saturday 3 November 2007, by Rup Narayan Das

Pranab Mukherjee took over the reins of the Ministry of External Affairs one year ago on October 25 last year at South Block at a very trying time. When his predecessor, K. Natwar Singh, left the exalted office, the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, temporarily looked after the portfolio. Although the MEA, on earlier occasions, had been under the direct superintendence of the Prime Minister, the magnitude of the problemms entailed dedicated attention and quality time to navigate the myriad of day-to-day issues and also to evolve a proactive policy, proper coordination and direction.

It was in this context that the Prime Minister entrusted Mukherjee with the onerous responsibility of the Ministry of External Affairs. For a veteran politician, a seasoned and experienced Minister like Mukherjee, it was like a home-coming, a position which he held earlier. Being the Defence Minister, the portfolio which he demitted before assuming charge of the MEA, Mukherjee was quite abreast of India’s external relations as the dividing line between External Affairs and Defence is wafer-thin. Often one has a corresponding bearing on the other. At least three Ministries, namely, the Ministries of External Affairs, Defence and Finance are intertwined with one another and there is always a synergy among these integrated Ministries of the government. The synergy facilitates an integrated approach to foreign policy issues and the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.

During his long innings in public life spanning more than four decades, Mukherjee had held almost all strategic Ministries such as External Affairs, Finance, Revenue and Banking, Commerce, Steel, Mines and had also held the office of the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. Besides, as a senior politician he had held important positions in the party and various Committees of Parliament as well. All these vast experiences coupled with his erudition in fact stood him in good stead in steering the wheel at the South Block with ease, finesse and dexterity. At a time when economic diplomacy has assumed a critical component of the determinates of foreign policy, Mukherjee’s deep insight of the economic imperatives has also enabled him to have a holistic view of India’s foreign policy.

On top of it, his exposure and experience in the multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank and African Development Bank are also no less impressive. All these enviable exposures and expertise have given him a direct and thorough knowledge of the functioning of these institutions that has taught him to chart out the right course of action to protect and promote national interest. No wonder then that he was rated as one of the best Finance Ministers of the world in 1984 according to a survey of Euro-Money, a journal published from New York. Nothing can be more eloquent of the financial acumen and astuteness of Mukherjee than the fact that under his stewardship India earned the distinction of not withdrawing the last instalment of the IMF loan to the extent of US $ 1 billion.

When Mukherjee became the Minister of External Affairs for the second time in October last, he brought with him not only his vast and wide experience, but also wisdom and vision of a scholar statesman. As the face of India’s new diplomacy, Mukherjee is like a hyphen that buckles change with continuity. Being an old timer, he carries forward the Nehruvian milieu and ethos of India’s foreign policy laced with India’s concern and commitment with the aspirations and yearnings of the Afro-Asian countries and the liberal tradition of democracy fathomed by the West with the imperatives of globalisation and economic reforms and liberalisation. He strikes a fine balance between the two and brings out a synthesis of India’s role in world politics and treads the middle path with equanimity.

The immediate challenge that Mukherjee had to grapple with was the Indo-US nuclear deal in which he had a two-pronged mandate—one to iron out differences with the Left parties suppor-ting the government and the UPA allies and secondly to facilitate its smooth passage at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the 45-Member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the US Congress and the government. It is indeed a tall order to smoothen the rough edges. Given the limited leeway available, no Foreign Minister perhaps could have done better than what he has been able to achieve so far.

YET another major issue which he was faced with was to arrest the perceptible erosion of good will of India’s traditional allies in the Afro-Asian region in the wake of the developments in the Gulf and the situation in Afghanistan vis-à-vis India’s new strategic alliance with the US. At a time when India’s image in the African countries was showing the signs of sagging, Mukherjee resurrected it. He secured the support of 53-member African Union for India’s bid for a permanent seat in the expanded United Nations Security Council during his visit to Ethiopia in July this year. At a time when there have been attempts to write off the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) from the lexicon of international relations, Mukherjee reiterated India’s commitment to the NAM in no uncertain words. Reacting sharply to the off-the-cuffe remark of US Secretary of State Condoleeze Rice in June this year, he emphatically said that there could be no question of India’s firm and abiding commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement. Sooner than later, the US envoy in India acknowledged the NAM’s role in the historical perspective.

As far as Iran is concerned, much before Russian President Putin paid a visit to Iran in the second week of October and extended moral support to Teheran, Mukherjee very courageously and boldly articulated that any military action was ruled out and in no uncertain words said that it was axiomatic that threats against and denigration of the country will not work much to the chagrin of the USA. As regards Myanmar, he did not yield under the pressure of the West and the ASEAN and at the same time put across the subtle message to Myanmar for reconciliation and political solution of the impasse there without offending the susceptibility and sensitivity of the military regime. This position he reiterated at the trilateral meeting among Foreign Ministers of Russia, China and India at the two-day meeting held on October 24 and 25 at Harbin in China.

He has also added contour and content to India’s ‘Look East’ policy. He has dealt with India’s delicate relationship with China with circumspection, unfazed by minor irritants and has taken India’s relationship with Japan and the South-East Asian countries to still greater heights. While dealing with China, India had also to contend with a rising China and its equation with India’s neighbours like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. It is indeed a tight- rope walk requiring the dexterity of a skilled diplomat and the finesse of a statesman which he exudes so eloquently. During the last one year Mukherjee has not only been able to strike the right chord with the friendly countries of India in Asia and Africa, in the Gulf, Middle East and Central America, but has been successful in dealing with the West, particularly the USA, on an equal footing.


The author is a Joint Director in the Research and Information Division of the Lok Sabha Secretariat. The views expressed here are those of the author alone.

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