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India Swears In New Government

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Usually the definition of news is when something changes, but in India today, the news is that something didn't: India has the same prime minister. Manmohan Singh is being sworn in for a second term. His Congress Party won its biggest election victory in many years and delivered a little bit of political stability to a country that doesn't often have much.

India's new ruling coalition will be stronger than the last, but it's also under greater pressure to deliver for one of the world's rising powers. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES: No one expected Manmohan Singh to do so well. Everyone saw him as a quiet and brilliant economist with little aptitude for India's rough and tumble politics. His critics portrayed him as a puppet manipulated by Sonia Gandhi, the matriarch from the dynasty behind the Congress Party.

But, says political analyst, Professor Ashish Nandi(ph), everyone got it wrong.

Professor ASHISH NANDI (Political Analyst): Everybody underestimated the prime minister. He was considered to be a person that totally under control of Sonia Gandhi and the Congress bigwigs, a person who did not have an independent political base.

REEVES: Nandi says Singh made a good impression on the people who really matter: India's 400 million voters.

Prof. NANDI: The Indian electorate preferred him because he was low-key, he seemed different. He was an educated man who was known for his scholarship, and it kept his voice and rhetoric at a low level.

REEVES: Today, the 76-year-old Singh's being sworn in for another term at the helm of India, a rising global power. He's only the second prime minister in the nation's history to lead his party to an election triumph after serving a full five-year term. The first was Jawaharlal Nehru, a founding father of independent India.

Rahul Gandhi, Sonia's son, is Nehru's great-grandson. He also played a big role in the election victory. The world's watching to see what role he'll have in the new government.

India's elections were universally expected to produce a fragile coalition that probably wouldn't last long. In fact, it's left Singh's Congress Party and its allies only 10 seats short of an outright majority. In the last few days, they've recruited enough supporters to take them comfortably over the line.

Singh will now hope to avoid scenes like this:

Prime Minister MANMOHAN SINGH (India): You are behaving abominably, in a disgusting manner. I have to - you have to go out of the house.

(Soundbite of men shouting)

REEVES: This was India's parliament in full throttle during his first term. The row was over the new strategic relationship between India and the United States, founded on a nuclear transfer agreement. The deal met fierce opposition from India's communists, on whom Singh's government at the time depended.

Writer and commentator John Elliot has been covering India for nearly 20 years.

Mr. JOHN ELLIOT (Writer, Commentator): The communists were just basically against it, primarily because for anti-American reasons. If it hadn't been for the communists, that would've gone through much earlier than it did, and it would've been implemented. It would've gone through more stages of implementation.

REEVES: Investors in the markets are enthusiastic about Singh's reelection. On the first day of trading after the election results, India's stock exchange rose so sharply it triggered circuit breakers.

Investors recall Singh as the man who, as finance minister, led the liberalization of India's economy in the early 1990s. But Singh also supports big social welfare programs aimed at lifting up India's multitude of poor. Elliot says Singh now has a lot on his hands.

Mr. ELLIOT: The main thing is to improve the educational system, to improve the health services, to improve various aspects of the environment and infrastructure. Then on top of that, more conventional reforms like opening up the financial sector more, improving telecoms, liberalizing foreign investments.

REEVES: Washington will be watching India's new government closely. Analysts say the new partnership will remain in tact, but they expect some glitches. India's particularly nervous about U.S. relations with Pakistan.

Ruben Desatchtev(ph) of the Alliance for U.S. India Business expects differences in other areas, including trade and climate change. But he adds…

Mr. RUBEN DESATCHTEV (Alliance for U.S. India Business): There may be some ups and downs, but I think the expectation is that as mature partners, the (unintelligible) will sit down and keep moving forward.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.