Gandhi moves swiftly to build new government

Sonia Gandhi worked swiftly today to build a new coalition government for India around her family’s Congress party after a stunning upset election victory, but refused to confirm whether she would be the next prime minister.

Sonia Gandhi worked swiftly today to build a new coalition government for India around her family’s Congress party after a stunning upset election victory, but refused to confirm whether she would be the next prime minister.

The party that led India to freedom from British colonial rule and then ran the country for 40 years is returning to power after an eight-year hiatus, riding a surge of discontent among poor voters who felt left behind by the economic reforms championed by now ousted Prime Minster Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Originally Italian but holding Indian citizenship for the past two decades, Gandhi is the widow of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. She could become India’s first foreign-born leader.

As they rallied support from allied smaller parties to form a government, she and other Congress leaders were hesitant to state outright that she will grab the top job, once also held by her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi.

Gandhi said the Congress party would elect its parliamentary leader on Saturday, a post she now holds. That person was likely to be prime minister. So far she has no apparent rivals.

“We are in a coalition and until we discuss this, we don’t want to jump the gun” about who will be prime minister, said a senior Congress official, Kamalnath, who uses one name.

Gandhi discussed strategy and the allocation of Cabinet positions today with allied parties that helped unseat Vajpayee’s Hindu-nationalist-led National Democratic Alliance in favour of Congress’ more secular vision.

“Over the next few days the process of government formation will gather momentum,” she told a news conference.

“We will take the lead to ensure our country has a strong, stable and secular government at the earliest opportunity,” Gandhi said. “We are going to hold meetings as soon as possible with other parties which have an alliance with us.”

Vajpayee resigned, but President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam asked him to stay on until the new government is formed, possibly by early next week.

The final tallies for 539 Parliament seats show Congress and its allies plus the leftist parties that supported it winning 279 seats, a majority of the 545-seat Parliament. Four more constituencies will revote later this month and two members are appointed.

Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies had 187 seats, and other smaller parties and independents had 73.

Gandhi pledged that Vajpayee’s peace initiative to end five decades of enmity with neighbouring Pakistan would be continued. “From the very beginning we’ve been supporting the prime minister’s initiative vis-à-vis Pakistan,” Gandhi said.

Pakistan has said it expects the peace process to continue.

India’s stock and currency markets had dived over fears that no bloc would be able to form a government quickly, but they rebounded.

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