Manmohan Singh, an Oxford-educated economist who has pledged to continue economic reforms while ensuring that they do a better job of helping India's poor, was sworn in Saturday as India's 13th prime minister.
President Abdul Kalam administered the oath of office to Singh and 68 ministers in a new coalition government that restores India's Congress party to power after a hiatus of eight years, following its dramatic upset victory in parliamentary elections that ended last week.
Singh, 71, was chosen by his party to lead the country after the Congress president, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, made a surprise decision to turn down the prime minister's job. Gandhi's announcement came after Hindu nationalists protested that her foreign origin made her unsuitable.
Saturday's swearing-in ceremony capped several days of intense backroom bargaining as Singh and Gandhi, who plans to continue to lead the party, struggled to parcel out key ministries among Congress and the regional and caste-based parties that will form the new government. India's communist parties have pledged to support the government but say they will not formally join it.
Key cabinet assignments remained unannounced Saturday. But party officials said that Congress, with 145 seats in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament, will retain the most important portfolios. Leading candidates for several of the top ministries have close ties to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty now led by Sonia Gandhi.
The foreign minister's job, for example, is likely to go to Natwar Singh, a party stalwart from the state of Rajasthan who served as foreign minister under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi's late husband, a senior party official said. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991.
The job of home minister is likely to be filled by Pranab Mukherjee, a finance minister in the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi's mother, who was assassinated in 1984. The home minister has responsibility for domestic security, including the continuing counterinsurgency campaign in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
For now, Singh is likely to retain the portfolio of finance minister, the same job he held in the last Congress-led government, from 1991 to 1996, according to Congress party sources quoted by the Press Trust of India news service. Singh is a Sikh and will be the first member of a religious minority to serve as India's prime minister.
Singh and his fellow ministers were sworn in late this afternoon in a lavishly decorated hall in Rastrapati Bhavan, the 340-room sandstone palace that was built in 1929 as the home of the British viceroy but now serves as the official presidential residence.
A few minutes before he took the oath, Singh, wearing a blue turban and long white tunic, exchanged smiles and greetings with outgoing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party led the coalition that was defeated in the recent election. BJP leaders, although not Vajpayee himself, had said they would boycott the ceremony if Sonia Gandhi became prime minister.
A soft-spoken economist who was born into a farm family, Singh was widely praised during his last stint in government as the architect of economic reforms that rescued India from insolvency and opened the economy to the outside world. But the prospect that communists will have a significant voice in decision-making has caused concern in financial circles.
In its draft policy agenda for the new government, Congress has sought to strike a balance between the pro-growth policies of the last government and those that Singh and others contend have hurt the poor.
It promises, for example, to ensure continued economic growth of 7 to 8 percent. But it also maintains that privatization of state-owned industries -- which Congress says has depressed employment -- will proceed "on a case-by-case basis," with the government retaining ownership of those that generate profits.
Similarly, the draft promises a massive new employment program that will provide a job on public works projects to every rural household for at least 100 days a year. And it proposes to help the beleaguered agricultural sector by protecting farmers from imports, expanding the availability of credit and investing heavily in new irrigation systems.
Under Congress governments during the Cold War, India had prickly relations with the United States and was a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement; Natwar Singh, the likely choice for foreign minister, once served as the organization's secretary general. During a television interview last week, Natwar Singh said that if Congress had been in power when U.S. soldiers' abuse of Iraqi prisoners came to light, the government would have officially condemned it.
But he also observed, "We are the world's largest democracy, and they are the world's most powerful democracy, so we are natural allies."