First Sikh premiership for India's secular government

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The Independent Online

The party that promised India strong secular government is to give the country its first Sikh prime minister. Former finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh yesterday accepted an invitation from the country's president to lead a government, one week after the Congress Party and its allies won a surprising national election victory.

After defeating the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi was expected to become Prime Minister. But on Tuesday she stunned her party and the world by saying that she did not want the post. That left the party scrambling to find a replacement, while Ms Gandhi's supporters held demonstrations calling on her to reconsider.

She nominated Dr Singh to be Prime Minister, and yesterday Congress party members endorsed him as their leader. A short time later Ms Gandhi and Dr Singh visited President A P J Abdul Kalam, who invited Dr Singh to form a government. He is expected to be sworn in today.

After the meeting the prime minister elect said India's reform process would go on with a human face, providing a strong social safety net and jobs for the poor. "There is no reason for panic over economic policies," Dr Singh said as Ms Gandhi stood beside him. "I know my limitations, but with Madam's (Sonia Gandhi's) support, we are going to make the future bright."

Ms Gandhi made it clear she did not regret turning down the post. "I think the country will be safe under Manmohan," she said. "There has been a lot of pressure on me. Now I am happy and relaxed".

India's stock markets, which fell sharply on news that the Congress Party had won the election, rallied for the second day in a row on news that Dr Singh would lead the country. There had been concern over the potential influence of the Communist parties Congress is relying on as its coalition partners.

Dr Singh, 71, was born into a poor Sikh family in the Indian state of Punjab. The Oxford-educated economist entered politics in 1991. For the next five years Dr Singh was India's finance minister. When he took up the post the country was almost bankrupt. He introduced the widespread reforms that transformed the economy by changing tax laws and making it easier for Indians to do business with foreigners.

The results of Dr Singh's free-market reforms are still being experienced today as India's economy continues to expand rapidly. The appointment of a prime minister from one of the country's religious minorities symbolises the dramatic swing in India's government. The Congress Party and its allies had promised to create a secular government if elected. About 80 per cent of India's population of more than 1 billion are Hindu. Critics had accused the BJP of putting the rights and needs of Hindus ahead of India's Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.

In an interview during the election campaign Ms Gandhi said she entered politics in 1998 to fight against the BJP. She said unless the BJP could be defeated, the communal policies the party supported would destroy India. There remains anguish in some quarters that the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty will not reclaim the premiership. About 1,000 Congress workers gathered in front of the party's headquarters in Delhi yesterday. They waved flags, chanted and burned effigies of Ms Gandhi's critics. Fifty women from Rajasthan said they would go on hunger strike until Ms Gandhi changed her mind: a small group of men lay down in the road and said they would not drink until that happened. Temperatures in the city reached 43C and at least three had to be taken to hospital.

Ms Gandhi, 57, who was born in Italy, is likely to be the power behind Dr Singh's throne. She retains organisational control of the party as well as a parliamentary seat. Before his appointment, Dr Singh described her as his leader and said he would be no substitute for her.