Washington: After a bruising political fight, President Barack Obama finally got Chuck Hagel confirmed as defence secretary by the Senate even as a new controversy erupted over his nominee's "distorted views" on India.
The final 58-41 vote fell nearly down party lines, with only four Republicans voting for the former Nebraska senator and a fellow Republican, the smallest margin for a defence secretary since the position was created in 1947, according to Senate records.
Hagel, 66, a decorated Vietnam war veteran, will succeed Leon Panetta at the Pentagon. Panetta, who earlier served as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in contrast, was confirmed in his defence job by 100-0 vote.
Hagel's Senate confirmation came a day after one of his previously unreleased 2011 speech suggesting that "India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border" in Afghanistan mysteriously surfaced.
Hagel, according to a video of the speech obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, said during a 2011 address on Afghanistan at Oklahoma's Cameron University also suggested "India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front."
Indian officials were quick to rebut the remarks with a spokesperson for the Indian embassy telling the Free Beacon that Hagel's remarks are not grounded in "reality."
"Such comments attributed to Sen. Hagel, who has been a long-standing friend of India and a prominent votary of close India-US relations, are contrary to the reality of India's unbounded dedication to the welfare of the Afghan people," the spokesperson said to the Free Beacon in an e-mail.
However, the "India card" came handy for the conservative critics of Hagel with Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, suggesting that Hagel's "distorted views on India" "provide yet another indication that he is poorly qualified" for the defence job..
"The statement is not only contrary to reality; it goes directly against the policy of the Obama Administration, which has been to support a robust Indian role in Afghanistan," she said.
"Perhaps Hagel misspoke," Curtis said. "If he hopes to restore credibility both here in Washington and in this important part of the world, especially with India-a crucial Asian partner of the US-he needs to correct the record."
"Otherwise, he will have handed his critics one more reason to doubt his credibility for the nation's top defence position," she said.
Earlier, some fellow Republicans had held up Hagel's confirmation picking among other things on his 2007 comments that the "Jewish lobby intimidated lawmakers."
Hagel's criticism of the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, and his past positions on Iran and on US military intervention also raised the hackles of his critics.
He also labelled former President George W. Bush as callous on Iraq and in the late 1990s. he spoke about an ambassadorial nominee as being "openly, aggressively gay," remarks for which he has since apologised.