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India's PM charts a careful path

By CNN's Ram Ramgopal

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There have been questions about Singh's appetite for the rough-and tumble of Indian politics.
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GRADUAL APPROACH
INDIA'S GROWTH
Recent GDP rates

1998-99: 6.5 percent
1999-00: 6.1 percent
2000-01: 4.4 percent
2001-02: 5.8 percent
2002-03: 4.0 percent
2003-04: 8.2 percent
2004-05: 6.4 percent (F)
India's financial year ends March 31

Source: Morgan Stanley
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NEW DELHI -- From the moment Manmohan Singh became prime minister in May, analysts in New Delhi began questioning the longevity of the United Progressive Alliance government.

As the head of an administration made up of 19 parties, including two communist ones, Singh has had to chart a careful path in dealing with his allies and political adversaries.

Singh's demeanor has long been described as scholarly and gentlemanly, and some have even questioned whether he has the appetite for the rough-and-tumble of Indian politics.

And because Singh was hand-picked by Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, who turned down the top post herself, some independent analysts and opposition party activists have also wondered who's calling the shots in the government.

The Italian-born Gandhi, who married into the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty of Indian politics, still occupies the prominent position at public functions. Congress party workers say the distinction should be obvious: Gandhi is the undisputed leader of the ruling party, while Prime Minister Singh is the leader of the government.

"She's certainly more visible. She certainly makes more statements on policy than she needs to," said Tavleeen Singh, political columnist with the Indian Express newspaper.

"So we have this very peculiar situation where the president of a party appears to be more powerful than the prime minister."

At his first news conference last weekend to mark the first 100 days of his government, Manmohan Singh publicly denied there are two centers of power in New Delhi.

"I was not an aspirant (for the job of prime minister)," he said. "Since I was entrusted with the job, I consider it a great challenge and honor."

The 71-year-old technocrat-turned-prime minister entered politics more than a decade ago, as finance minister in a Congress government. Building on his experience as a former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Singh then initiated a process of free market reforms to pull the Indian economy back from the edge of an abyss.

This time round, Singh and his government have said they will reorganize their priorities toward India's rural poor.

Singh and P. Chidambaram, the present finance minister, say Indian industry and the markets have found their own feet and that the focus needs to shift to agriculture and the needs of the 750-million people -- nearly three-quarters of the total population -- that live in the villages.

Most have little or no access to basic needs, like drinking water, medical care or primary education.

"Two worlds coexist in India," said finance minister Chidambaram. "There is a first world and a third world... we'll have to ride both horses, (we) will have to deal with two different worlds at the same time."

This approach may be as much about good policy as good politics. Many analysts say the previous BJP government's policies were aimed mainly at the middle-class and rich -- still a minority in this vast democracy.

The Hindu nationalist BJP even ran a campaign whose catchline was "India (is) Shining." Even BJP workers say this boomeranged on the party among the poor, who felt they had not reaped the benefits of globalization and free market reforms.

"These (areas) were neglected by the previous government and that is why, I believe, they had to bite the dust," said Chidambaram. "Clearly we've signaled we care for the poor people of India, especially people who are dependent on farming and people who live in villages."

In the first 100 days in office, Manmohan Singh has faced numerous trials, including a trucker's strike, rising oil prices and inflation, and a tumultuous session in Parliament disrupted several times by opposition parties.

And on the international front, one of the biggest challenges remains the peace process with Pakistan. Earlier this week, the foreign ministers of both countries met for the first time in more than three years. While there was little progress on resolving their dispute over the Himalayan territory of Kashmir, both sides announced a series of steps aimed at improving people-to-people ties.

Later this month the prime minister will visit the United States to attend the United Nations General Assembly session.

Manmohan Singh is viewed as a competent economist and a good man, said analyst Tavleen Singh. "His heart is in the right place. If Sonia Gandhi would let him have a shot at the job she gave him, he might do quite a good job."

At his news conference, the prime minister was asked about his non-confrontational temperament and whether he would quit if the going got tough. The government will last its full term, he said, adding: "It's a misconception that I can be pressured into giving up."


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