Gandhi remembers husband as commentators welcome PM

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Sonia Gandhi, the victor in India's general election who confounded expectations by refusing to become prime minister, yesterday attended a memorial service in Delhi for her late husband, Rajiv Gandhi, exactly 13 years after his assassination. Her children, Priyanka and Rahul, and the man she has chosen to be prime minister in her place, Manmohan Singh, were also present.

Sonia Gandhi, the victor in India's general election who confounded expectations by refusing to become prime minister, yesterday attended a memorial service in Delhi for her late husband, Rajiv Gandhi, exactly 13 years after his assassination. Her children, Priyanka and Rahul, and the man she has chosen to be prime minister in her place, Manmohan Singh, were also present.

At the other end of the country, hundreds of supporters waited in vain in broiling heat for a sight of her. It was the first year that she has failed to show up on this date in the dusty southern town of Sriperumbudur, where Rajiv was killed by a suicide bomber at an election rally. Following the service in Delhi, Mrs Gandhi and Mr Singh retreated behind closed doors to continue working on appointments for Mr Singh's first cabinet.

Mrs Gandhi up-ended all predictions and opinion polls to lead India's oldest party, the Congress, and its allies to victory in the election that finished last week. Then on Tuesday, while the world was still getting used to the idea of India being led by a Roman Catholic woman from Piedmont, she negated predictions again by announcing that she had decided not to become prime minister.

The next day she announced that Mr Singh was to be prime minister. Once the fact had sunk in, it wasn't long before commentators were describing it as "a master-stroke". The Oxford-educated economist, 71, entered politics in 1991 as finance minister after a succession of top trade and economic posts. He proceeded to hack away at the regulations which made India's economy one of the most sluggish and impenetrable in the world. India's steadily growing economic profile since then is largely thanks to his reforms.

A practising Sikh and India's first non-Hindu prime minister, Mr Singh has become celebrated for his pithy pronouncements and unfashionable simplicity. "People who go round to his house hesitate to say 'yes' to his offer of tea because they know he makes it himself," said one Delhi-based commentator. "He has a very simple, austere lifestyle, no one can find anything to say against him."

Living up to his reputation, Mr Singh summoned reporters to his house on Thursday morning to outline his ideas for government. He told them that economic reforms will continue "but with a human face". He said: "Reforms are needed but in a manner that the benefits go to the common man. We will work to create strong social security and safety nets. India needs a strong public and private sector."

India's stock exchange plummeted after the press conference, but Mr Singh's commitment to improving the lot of the poor was recognition of the fact that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led government had been punished electorally for "believing its own propaganda", as the Delhi commentator put it, "confounding the growing affluence of its middle-class constituency with the prosperity of the nation as a whole".

The BJP years saw India's economy grow, but without a net increase in jobs; meanwhile the still-crucial agriculture and manufacturing sectors were left to fester. Hundreds of impoverished farmers committed suicide in desperation. Mr Singh also echoed one of the most bitter criticisms of the outgoing government when he said that "divisive forces were given a free run of the place", adding that his government would "maintain communal harmony at all costs".

"Unity and communal harmony are a priority," he said. "We are the most tolerant civilisation in the world. We have to strengthen and build on that heritage." The extremists in the Hindu nationalist fold advocate the creation of a "Hindu nation" in which Muslims, Christians and other minorities are second-class citizens.

This was the week in which Sonia Gandhi became, as the Hindustan Times put it, "the only person in Indian history to have turned down the post of prime minister twice". The first time was in 1991, in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination; this week, as the paper pointed out, the circumstances were very different. And now that people in India have got over their shock at her decision, it is increasingly being seen not only as shrewd but also as widely trailed in advance.

Tejbir Singh, co-editor of Seminar, a Delhi journal of current affairs, said: "It was very evident, if you look at Sonia's earlier pronouncements, that she wasn't in the game to lead the government. She said as much in a television interview before the election. That wasn't her motive for going into politics, but to rescue the Congress from the lower depths it was going through. It was also quite evident that she was grooming Manmohan Singh to take charge."

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