The low-profile reformer who may now lead India

He has been an academic and a civil servant. He is a fervent admirer of Margaret Thatcher. And now Dr Manmohan Singh is the man most likely to be charged with uniting India.

Dr Singh is one of Sonia Gandhi's closest and most trusted supporters. The 71-year-old MP accompanied her on Tuesday morning when she met President A P J Abdul Kalam and discussed forming a government. Since the election, he has been actively involved in writing up a shared economic programme with the allies of the Congress party.

Dr Singh was finance minister in the Congress government of the early 1990s and was responsible for introducing the reforms that liberalised India's economy, making it more attractive to entrepreneurs and foreign investors. When he took over as finance minister in 1991 India was almost bankrupt. His reforms helped pave the way for the country to reach the point where its economy is growing faster than any other in Asia, other than China.

In his maiden speech as finance minister, Dr Singh quoted Victor Hugo, saying: "No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come."

A Sikh from Punjab, Dr Singh is a powerful embodiment of the Congress Party's stated aim to be a force for promoting a secular India. The deposed BJP styled itself as primarily the party of the Hindu majority.

He also appears to have that rare political quality - the ability to unite. Admired by both the poor and the business elite, he is seen as someone who understands that the country must change, but that it must do so in a way that benefits the many, rather than just the few.

He prefers to keep a low profile and is seen as a genial politician who keeps himself above petty power games. He once told an interviewer that he was "very surprised" when he was invited to become the finance minister.

"I didn't believe it. When I asked some friends of mine [whether or not I should take it] they said, "You are going to become the scapegoat. You're going to fail and maybe within six months you will be out'."

But he did not listen. "Here was an opportunity to play a political role, and there was an odd chance that we would make a success of it, in which case I would have a footnote in India's history." Now Dr Singh stands on the brink of having a chapter to himself.

The other name being mentioned in connection with the post is Pranab Mukherjee. Another former finance minister, the 67-year-old had never won a parliamentary election before last week's poll but was first drafted into the federal cabinet in 1980. An author, journalist and teacher, he came close to being prime minister after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in 1991 but lost the subsequent Congress party leadership contest to P.V. Narasimha Rao.

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