Political veteran new choice for Indian PM

A 71-year-old economic reformer and political veteran was set to become India’s next prime minister, receiving his Congress party’s endorsement today after its leader Sonia Gandhi shocked supporters by abandoning her claim to the top job.

A 71-year-old economic reformer and political veteran was set to become India’s next prime minister, receiving his Congress party’s endorsement today after its leader Sonia Gandhi shocked supporters by abandoning her claim to the top job.

Congress named Manmohan Singh as its new choice, and he was expected to seek presidential approval soon to form a Congress-led coalition government following its election victory announced last week.

If he gets the go-ahead from President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Singh will take an oath of office that could end days of political drama in the world’s most populous democracy, which saw record market plunges and furious protests over the prospect of Gandhi becoming India’s first foreign-born leader.

Jairam Ramesh, a senior Congress official, said that Congress had swung behind Singh, the Oxford-educated former finance minister who was the architect of India’s free-market reforms of the early 1990s.

His admirers credit him with helping to save the country’s socialist-style economy from near collapse at the time.

“There couldn’t have been better choice. He is widely respected for his integrity and vision,” said C. Raja Mohan, a professor of South Asian studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “It will also send a very good signal to the world outside. If India’s economy keeps growing at a high rate, it will be able to play a bigger role in global affairs.”

Stock markets that plunged early this week on fears of an unstable coalition under Gandhi opened higher today on news that Singh was set to head the new Congress-led government. But volatility continued, with stocks losing gains in early trading.

The Italian-born Gandhi, who became an Indian citizen 21 years ago, bowed out yesterday, stunning her supporters, but pleasing Hindu nationalists outraged over the idea of a foreign-born leader.

Rather than wait for allies to visit her, as she did over the previous five days, Gandhi today went to the home of a top communist – Harkishan Singh Surjeet, general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist – to seek his support for Manmohan Singh.

Gandhi’s Congress party and allies trounced the Hindu-nationalist party of the now-caretaker Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Democratic National Alliance in national elections that ended last week.

Congress rode in on a wave of discontent among millions of impoverished Indians who feel left out of the country’s economic boom.

But the Congress-led alliance did not win an outright majority in Parliament and must form a minority government relying on support of two powerful communist parties, raising fears of instability and a backtrack on privatisation plans.

Dozens of Congress supporters still sat on the pavement outside Gandhi’s house in the heart of New Delhi, chanting that Gandhi was still their leader.

If Gandhi had become the next leader, she would have been the fourth member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to be prime minister.

According to Jyoti Basu, a senior Communist Party of India-Marxist leader and Congress party ally, Gandhi’s children did not want her to take the post. “Rahul and Priyanka said, ‘We have lost our father, we don’t want to lose our mother as well.”’

Gandhi’s husband, Rajiv Gandhi, was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991 and mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, was shot dead by her own bodyguards in 1984. Both served as prime minister.

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