The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Wait for foreign minister gets longer

New Delhi, Sept. 2: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is likely to hold on to the external affairs portfolio for the time being as the “limited” but much-awaited cabinet shuffle may not happen immediately.

“There is no activity to suggest that a shuffle could take place immediately. Otherwise there would be meetings between the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi,” South Block sources said.

“Looks like, it’s been put in cold storage for the moment,” a Congress official added.

This also means that the labour ministry berth, vacated by K. Chandrasekhar Rao of the Telengana Rashtra Samiti, may be temporarily hived off to some other minister.

It also scotches speculation that either defence minister Pranab Mukherjee — he leaves for Germany tonight on a week-long official trip — or finance minister P. Chidambaram could move to external affairs and that there would be a musical chair-like rotation of the “big four”.

By the time Mukherjee returns, the Prime Minister will be ready to leave for Cuba.

Just before Parliament’s monsoon session ended, Manmohan had hinted that the country would have a new external affairs minister before the UN General Assembly session in New York, slated to take place in the last week of September.

Indications were he would appoint the new minister by the end of August so that he would have enough time to prepare himself for the New York assignment.

Manmohan himself will not attend the UN session because he would have just returned from Cuba and would have to attend the Congress chief ministers’ conclave on September 23 and 24. Sources said he would depute Mukherjee or another senior minister like Kapil Sibal or Kamal Nath in his place.

Although the sources maintained that the Prime Minister was not keen to retain external affairs for long, they conceded that zeroing in on a successor was “tough” because of the role Manmohan has envisaged for the new minister.

Manmohan is apparently keen to see the Indo-US nuclear deal — as close to his heart as economic reform — reach its “logical” conclusion. This is in spite of the appointment of outgoing foreign secretary Shyam Saran as special envoy in charge of the deal.

If there is a new minister, Manmohan’s own sense of “protocol and decorum” will not allow him to be overly interventionist, the sources said.

For instance, if Manmohan picks Karan Singh for the job, the latter is unlikely to settle for a cosmetic role, the sources explained.

The other problem is finding a date for the new minister(s) to take oath of office. Manmohan will be preoccupied with a meeting of chief ministers on internal security on September 5. The period of Navratra, preceding Dussehra and Diwali, begins on September 7 and the belief in the north is nothing auspicious should be done that day. This leaves only September 6.

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