India Looks for a New Role on the Shifting World Stage INTERVIEW: PRANAB MUKHERJEE

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GAZING out of his expansive office in New Delhi, Pranab Mukherjee seems unable to restrain his delight. As India's newly appointed foreign minister, he finds himself directing the country's most dramatic shift in foreign policy in decades.

With the end of the cold war and after years of adhering to a "fiercely independent foreign policy," as one Western diplomat puts it, India is now eager to play a more prominent role in world affairs. But India is still trying to to find a suitable role for itself in a world devoid of the Soviet Union. New Delhi is establishing diplomatic ties with more nations and is also aggressively pursuing a quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, as well as membership in global trade alliances.

"India is determined to be recognized as a global power," says a diplomat here. At the same time, Indian officials say they have not abandoned their role as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement -- a loose affiliation of nations that tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to remain neutral during the cold war.

"Our policies are not disengaging but engaging us in world affairs," Mr. Mukherjee said in an interview with the Monitor, shortly before leaving for a visit this week to the United States.

Driving India's new foreign policy are the country's economic reforms, which it began four years ago. India is dismantling its socialist-style economy in hopes of matching the economic success of China and other East Asian nations.

Economics has become a "very important element" in India's foreign policy, says Mukherjee, who served as the country's commerce and finance ministers. "Our diplomatic missions are also being oriented significantly toward economic work." Trade issues are likely to play a prominent role in Mukherjee's talks with US officials this week. The US is India's largest trading partner, with more than $8 billion in annual two-way trade.

Some analysts, however, are skeptical of India's ability to transform itself into a diplomatic powerhouse. "The fundamental problem is that India carries so much baggage," says another diplomat here. He is referring to India's lingering feud with neighboring Pakistan, which is hampering its efforts to assert itself on the world stage.

Relations between the two nations have grown even worse in recent weeks, following the destruction of a Muslim shrine in Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao blamed "Pakistani extremists" for setting the fire that razed the village of Charar-i-Sharif in Kashmir. …