New Indian PM pledges 'unity and harmony'

Manmohan Singh, the soft-spoken economist named India’s next prime minister, pledged today to work to restore religious harmony, keep India investor-friendly and seek peace with rival Pakistan.

Manmohan Singh, the soft-spoken economist named India’s next prime minister, pledged today to work to restore religious harmony, keep India investor-friendly and seek peace with rival Pakistan.

Singh’s appointment ended a week of dramatic political turmoil in which Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow at the head of the country’s most powerful political dynasty, turned down the job.

She remains leader of the Congress party, which beat the Hindu-nationalist party of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in recent national elections.

Singh, a Sikh, will become India’s first non-Hindu prime minister and head of a ruling coalition to be called the United Progressive Alliance.

“Unity and communal harmony are a priority,” he said, calling on Indians to embrace the inherent tolerance of Hinduism, the predominant religion of this nation of more than one billion people.

“We are the most tolerant civilisation in the world – that is our great heritage. We have to strengthen and build on that heritage.”

Sikhs and Hindus have had close relations in India for centuries, except for a tense phase in 1984 after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi’s mother-in-law, at her home by her Sikh bodyguard.

That led to furious anti-Sikh riots in many parts of India, and the killing of hundreds of Sikhs during the tenure of Gandhi’s son, Rajiv, when the administration was accused of looking the other way.

Singh’s appointment should mend the rift between the Congress and the Sikh community provoked by the 1984 riots, say Sikh leaders.

“Mrs Gandhi has publicly shown that she believes in a Sikh and this step will certainly help in filling the gap between the Sikhs and Congress party,” said Sukhdev Singh, a well-known Sikh historian.

Vajpayee’s party was widely accused of ignoring, and even stoking, deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in the western state of Gujarat. His Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 1999 on a platform of eventually creating a Hindu nation, while Congress has pledged to maintain secular government.

“The essence of Hinduism is that parts may be different, but the goal is the same,” said Singh, alternating between Hindi and English.

Wearing a light-blue traditional Sikh turban, Singh addressed the nation shortly before the start of India’s trading day. Minutes later, stocks opened higher, but later fell on word that he is opposed to privatising state-run banks and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation.

While investors have backed Singh, a former finance minister who was behind India’s dramatic market reforms of the 1990s, they don’t welcome a halt in the government’s efforts to sell state-run companies.

Still, Singh said the economic reforms promoted by Vajpayee government would continue.

“The emergence of India as a major global economic power happens to be one such idea whose time has come,” he said.

“Reforms with a human face will be pursued,” Singh said, adding that reforms must not leave behind farmers, the rural poor and minority ethnic groups that the Congress party claimed were ignored by Vajpayee.

“The war against poverty and disease has to be carried on relentlessly and I pledge our government to remain steadfast in our commitment,” Singh said. “In the words of Mahatma, to build an India free from the fear of war, want and exploitation.”

He was referring to Mahatma Gandhi, India’s independence leader who often said India would never become a major power without first lifting its people from poverty.

Singh said “friendly relations” with Pakistan were a priority, after three wars with its nuclear rival since independence from Britain in 1947.

“We must find ways and means to resolve all outstanding problems that have been a source of friction,” he said. ”Without sacrificing our national security imperatives, to create an environment to move forward and improve our relations with Pakistan on a priority basis.”

Pakistan welcomed Singh’s remarks.

“No problem is intractable if there is a will to work toward just and durable solutions,” Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan said.

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