By Nidhi Verma and Mayank Bhardwaj
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Veteran diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri became India's new oil minister on Thursday, an appointment welcomed by energy experts who expect him to strike better import deals and showcase New Delhi as an attractive destination for investment in the sector.
Puri's appointment comes amid public anger over record-high fuel prices in India, which is now the world's third largest importer and consumer of oil and is seeking to strike better bargains with producers.
His past experience as India's permanent representative to the United Nations will serve Puri well in his new role, diplomats and sector experts said.
"Hardeep Puri knows how to project India's position very well. He is articulate," Ashok Sajjanhar, India's former ambassador to Iran and Kazakhstan, told Reuters.
"He has the experience of dealing with the world, and multilateral diplomacy comes easy to him."
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power seven years ago, India's oil demand has surged more than any other major buyer and it is seeking to diversify the sources of its imports.
"In the energy sector, we have been strengthening our ties with the United States and increasing our import of oil from them. We had some difficulties on pricing issues with the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia in particular," Sajjanhar said.
Relations between Riyadh and New Delhi came under strain earlier this year after Puri's predecessor, Dharmendra Pradhan, blamed production cuts by Saudi Arabia and others for driving up oil prices. [
India ships in more than 80% of its oil needs, as local crude output has remained almost stagnant for years.
Puri, 69, said on Thursday his focus would be on raising local oil and gas output. He declined to comment on fuel prices or his expectations from OPEC nations, pending a briefing from his team on those issues.
Rising oil imports require coordination between India's oil and foreign ministries, and Puri's diplomatic background will make it easier for him to do this, said Vivek Katju, a former Indian foreign minister.
He will also be able to "strengthen India's interaction with both oil-producing and oil-consuming countries", Katju added.
Sector analysts praised the efforts of outgoing minister Pradhan.
"Pradhan adequately used India's rising oil demand to lift the profile of the country among oil producers, especially among OPEC nations. He emerged as a public voice for Asian consumers," said Ehsan Ul-Haq, Lead Analyst at Refinitiv.
Pradhan sold India as an investment opportunity for oil producers and not just a market for oil sales, Haq added.
But Pradhan also faced criticism over high fuel prices.
"The new minister will have to walk a tightrope as, on the one hand, he has to ensure that consumers' interests are protected, and on the other, he has to maintain cordial relations with oil producers," Haq said.
Asked what his biggest challenge would be, Puri said: "Filling the big shoes of Dharmendra Pradhan".
(Reporting by Nidhi Verma and Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by Gareth Jones)