Gandhi prepares to take up India's reins

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The Independent Online

Sonia Gandhi won the backing of more than a dozen allies of her victorious Congress party to become India's first foreign-born Prime Minister yesterday.

Sonia Gandhi won the backing of more than a dozen allies of her victorious Congress party to become India's first foreign-born Prime Minister yesterday.

After a day of intense horse-trading to hammer out policy differences, leaders of the parties met Ms Gandhi and other Congress representatives yesterday to formally propose she head a Congress-led coalition government, said Manmohan Singh, a senior Congress leader.

The Italian born Gandhi will meet President A P J Abdul Kalam today to stake her claim to government, but she still has a lot of work to do to ensure the new government will be a stable one.

Congress party officials say the new government is likely to be sworn-in on Wednesday. Congress won 145 of 545 parliamentary seats in a surprising election upset on Thursday over the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Ms Gandhi spent a hectic weekend meeting potential allies. At her residence in the capital, Delhi, she held a two-and-a-half hour meeting that brought together the leaders of political parties which have already agreed to join the Congress-led government and leaders of the Communist parties that may join.

Ms Gandhi has invited the four communist parties, which between them won more than 60 seats, to join the government. She needs their support to push the coalition past the 272 seats it needs to guarantee a stable government.

Leaders of the major left parties held meetings of their own over the weekend. They have already pledged support to Ms Gandhi, but have not decided if they will join the Congress-led coalition or simply back it from the outside.

The leaders of the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India-Marxist, the All India Forward Block and the Revolutionary Socialist Party are expected to arrive at a "collective decision."

CPI(M) politburo member Sita Ram Yechuri said the left parties will "swim [or] sink together."

The four communist parties will hold a joint meeting today to finalise their stand on participation as well as the common minimum programme.

The Communists disagree with Congress on key economic and foreign policy issues, including the Congress decision to continue the privatisation of state-run companies. Some leftists argue that by joining the Congress government they would be able to push for an economic agenda that favours the poor, but other party members say the communists would have more influence by offering the Congress party crucial support in parliamentary votes without directly taking part in the messy business of government.

Sonia Gandhi led the Congress party and its allies to a stunning victory last week in India's national elections. Polls had predicted the BJP would be returned to power after a five-year term that saw India's economy rapidly expand, but Congress argued that the hundreds-of-millions of poor people in India had not benefited from the economic boom.

If she becomes Prime Minister, Ms Gandhi would follow in the footsteps of three of her relatives; her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, and his mother, Indira Gandhi, both led India. Indira's father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the country's first Prime Minister after India won independence in 1947.

Sonia Maino married Rajiv Gandhi in 1968. She's been an Indian citizen since 1983 but her critics have frequently attacked her, saying that as a foreigner she has no right to lead India.

Some BJP members say they will continue to fight to keep Ms Gandhi from reaching the top post.

A senior BJP official said several Hindu groups will launch a nationwide "National Pride" campaign against her.

And Sushma Swaraj, the Health Minister in the outgoing BJP government threatened to resign from parliament if Ms Gandhi becomes Prime Minister.