The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Mr Clean for scam-prone defence

New Delhi, Oct. 24: ‘Mr Clean’ A.K. Antony joined the cabinet today and was despatched straight to defend the country as Pranab Mukherjee, bearing that responsibility so far, was sent to take care of external affairs.

The diminutive Bengal leader with enormous ministerial experience is believed to have moved to external affairs with some reluctance.

In Antony’s case, it was the leadership that was keen on putting him in defence with billions of dollars of military purchases coming up.

Antony was sworn in at a brief ceremony along with two ministers of state — M.H. Ambareesh, a Congress MP from Karnataka and a former film hero, and Jai Prakash Narayan Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, who had to resign last year after an outrageous election law violation.

Ambareesh is likely to be Priya Ranjan Das Munshi’s deputy in information and broadcasting and Yadav will return to water resources.

In two other changes, Mani Shankar Aiyar, the panchayati raj minister, gets additional charge of the ministry for the Northeast and Oscar Fernandes, who did not have a portfolio, becomes minister of state for labour with independent charge.

Mukherjee’s move to external affairs was being seen from two angles. One, that Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh could not find anyone senior enough to man that ministry.

Two, they wanted to have someone with irreproachable credentials in the scam-prone defence ministry before the big-ticket purchases.

Congress sources said the decision to “remove” Mukherjee was taken at the “highest level” to send a “clear message through the appointment of Antony” about the leadership’s intention to project a clean-as-a-whistle image.

There was, of course, the other view. “We wanted him for higher responsibilities to match the situation which requires delicate dealing with Pakistan and China,” said a Congress functionary.

Mukherjee, however, had to be persuaded to give up the defence ministry, a job he was not too keen on to begin with but had “grown” into.

His reluctance to go to external affairs has several reasons. One, it’s a ministry where Manmohan Singh — a person who had served as Reserve Bank governor when Mukherjee was finance minister — will call all the big shots.

Two, there will be heavyweight people like M.K. Narayanan, the national security adviser, and Shyam Saran, the special envoy on the Indo-US deal, with whom he will have to share the turf.

In defence, he was the master of all he surveyed.

Three, he was unwilling to return to a job he had first taken up 15 years ago when P.V. Narasimha Rao made him the external affairs minister.

The reluctance, however, did not stop Mukherjee from sinking his teeth into the new job even before the official announcement.

Asked about the Indo-US nuclear agreement that has been thrown into uncertainty with Congressional elections coming up in the US, he said: “We have been assured by the (Bush) administration that the deal will go through. By and large, it has bipartisan support.”

Speaking on the India-Pakistan joint anti-terror mechanism, he said the primary objective was to exchange information. Whether the mechanism was working or not would be decided after weighing Pakistan’s response.

After the swearing-in, Sonia Gandhi said the long-expected shuffle in the party organisation would be carried out soon.

Will Rahul get in' “Ask him,” came the reply.

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