Economist is sworn in as leader of India

Singh, first Sikh to hold post of prime minister, to lead alliance of parties

May 23, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW DELHI, India - Manmohan Singh was sworn in as India's 13th prime minister yesterday, making history as the country's first Sikh to hold the position. Another kind of history was made as well: For the first time, the Indian National Congress, which led India on its own for 37 of the country's first 45 years, will lead a coalition government.

Singh, an economist and former finance minister, will be the country's first prime minister to hold a doctorate. He is credited with saving India from a balance-of-payments crisis and potential economic collapse in 1991, and with beginning many of the economic changes that have helped transform India's quasi-socialist economy into a growing global force. For now, at least, he is expected to also be finance minister.

A quiet, cerebral man who has maintained a resolutely simple life, he is far less of a politician than most of his predecessors as prime minister, having never won an elected seat in Parliament. But Sonia Gandhi, who has proved to be a surprisingly adept politician, will be at his side and actively involved in managing his coalition, not to mention the often fractious Congress party.

A few days ago, Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the leader of the Congress party, announced that she would not become prime minister as expected after Congress won the largest number of seats in Parliament. But she remains both leader of the party and chairman of its parliamentary delegation, and on Friday, as allies jockeyed for Cabinet portfolios, it was to her house they went.

In a sign that the two have something of a power-sharing arrangement, after Singh took the oath of office, he walked over to Gandhi and bowed slightly.

The Congress party's success in the elections was in large measure a tribute to the alliances it formed beforehand with smaller regional parties. The 68-member council of ministers sworn in yesterday also reflected those alliances. Ministers were sworn in from the Nationalist Congress Party of Maharashtra, the DMK of Tamil Nadu, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti of Andhra Pradesh, and more.

Compared with the previous government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the new government has less Cabinet representation from the Hindi-speaking north, especially the largest state of Uttar Pradesh, and more from the south and west.

But it has far more minority representation. There are seven Muslims; the previous Cabinet had one.

The list of ministers reflected, as well, the quiet political revolution that has taken place in India: the growing strength of the country's lower castes in politics.

Among those sworn in were Laloo Prasad Yadav, whose Rashtriya Janata Dal has mobilized the so-called backward castes of Bihar state, and Ram Vilas Paswan, whose Lok Janshakti Party, has done the same for Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, in Bihar.

Still, many of those sworn in represented the old guard of the Congress party; some have been members of Parliament since the 1960s. Many have been Cabinet ministers previously. That was a sharp contrast to the departing government, which had led the government for the first time.

"The Cabinet is a reflection of India's diversity and richness," Singh told the Associated Press. He acknowledged there were "difficulties in finalizing the Cabinet" and said portfolios would be announced today.

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