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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 October 2006, 15:50 GMT 16:50 UK
Veteran to steer Indian foreign policy
Sanjoy Majumder
By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC India correspondent, Delhi

India's new Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, is a veteran Congress party politician with decades of government experience and very close ties to the Gandhi family that has governed India for years.

Pranab Mukherjee
Mr Mukherjee becomes foreign minister at a critical time
India's foreign ministry has been without a head for nearly a year, when the former minister, Natwar Singh, was removed over his alleged role in Iraq's oil-for-food scandal.

Since then, the ministry has remained under the direct control of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh amid speculation that Natwar Singh could be brought back if cleared of the charges or a replacement named.

But any chance of Natwar Singh regaining his post disappeared this August, when a judicial inquiry alleged that he helped facilitate and influence the procurement of oil contracts, although it said it had no evidence to suggest that he had benefited personally.

Now the Manmohan Singh government has decided to move on and appoint Pranab Mukherjee as his replacement.

Raised eyebrows

Mr Mukherjee, who has been the Defence Minister in the Congress government for the past two years, takes charge at a critical time for India's foreign policy.

Next month, top-level foreign ministry officials from India and Pakistan will resume peace talks in Delhi which have been in cold storage since the July bombings in Mumbai.

Nuclear power station
The nuclear treaty with the US still needs Senate approval

And although Mr Singh and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf held a crucial meeting at Havana last month and pledged to push on with peace moves, relations between Delhi and Islamabad are not at their best.

The two leaders also said they had agreed to jointly combat terrorism, a statement that led to raised eyebrows back in India.

Many hardliners and members of the Indian intelligence and security establishment openly challenged the wisdom and effectiveness of the step, since India holds militant groups based in Pakistan responsible for carrying out attacks in India.

And when Mumbai police announced that they had strong evidence to suggest that Pakistan's military spy agency, the ISI, was behind the Mumbai blasts, it led to strong protests from Islamabad.

India has promised to share the evidence with Pakistan, although it has not done so as yet - and over the weekend the country's national security advisor suggested that the evidence was far from watertight.

One of Mr Mukherjee's last public statements as defence minister was to announce an investigation into an alleged spy ring in the Indian army which was passing on secrets to the ISI and his approach to Pakistan will be closely monitored in the days to come.

Nuclear deal doomed?

But the new minister will also have to nurture and drive his country's growing relations with the United States amid growing concern that a nuclear deal between Delhi and Washington is coming unstuck.

The controversial deal allows India access to crucial civilian nuclear technology but is opposed by some since Delhi has not yet signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Aftermath of Mumbai train blasts
Relations with Pakistan have been strained since the Mumbai train blasts
A bill allowing the deal to go ahead has already been passed by the US House of Representatives but has not yet been passed by the US Senate.

If the Democratic Party gains control of the Senate in the November mid-term elections, there is little chance of the deal getting through Indian diplomats believe.

Nevertheless, Mr Mukherjee has plenty of experience negotiating with the Americans - last year he signed a landmark 10-year agreement with US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld under which the two countries agreed to jointly produce weapons, cooperate on missile defence and even deploy forces together if necessary.

It's an open secret that Pranab Mukherjee was not Manmohan Singh's first choice for the job - Mr Mukherjee was himself a contender for the post of prime minister following the 2004 elections.

But as the most experienced member of his cabinet - he first became a minister in 1973 under Indira Gandhi and has been finance, defence and foreign minister under three different prime minister - he was perhaps the safest choice.

A close confidante of the Gandhi family, it's an appointment which will not be opposed by the party.

Mr Mukherjee is also leader of the lower house of parliament, since the prime minister is a member of the upper house, which means that he has the necessary political clout to stamp his authority on India's foreign policy.

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