Economist chosen to become next prime minister of India

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NEW DELHI — Manmohan Singh is set to become India's prime minister after the country's president confirmed yesterday that the soft-spoken and frugal economist had been asked to form the next government.

Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, who decided not to become prime minister despite leading an alliance of parties to victory in elections that ended last Thursday, stood at Singh's side, smiling broadly and looking very relieved.

Gandhi, 57, is the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Tomorrow marks the 13th anniversary of his assassination.

As hundreds of dejected pro-Gandhi demonstrators continued yesterday evening to demand she become prime minister, members of Parliament from her Congress Party endorsed Singh as their candidate for prime minister.

Singh and Gandhi then met President A.P.J. Kalam for the second day in a row, this time to say their United Progressive Alliance was prepared to form a government with Singh as its prime minister.

Gandhi, who became an Indian citizen in 1984, was her party's first choice for prime minister. But she suddenly backed out Tuesday under a relentless attack by Hindu nationalists, who argued that she is a foreigner unfit to govern the world's largest democracy.

Several party leaders offered their resignations yesterday in a final, desperate effort to persuade Gandhi to change her mind and become prime minister.

Although Gandhi is no longer parliamentary leader of her alliance, she remains president of the Congress Party, which will head the new coalition government. Singh, who will be India's first Sikh prime minister, was Gandhi's choice for the job. He is an internationally respected economist, and was the architect of India's economic reforms as finance minister in the early 1990s. He has a master's and doctorate degree from Oxford University and has worked for various U.N. agencies. A public servant since 1971, he is a former head of the nation's central bank.

People who have known and worked with Singh for more than a decade describe him as a sort of anti-politician, a quiet, hardworking man and a deep thinker who shuns the perks and corruption that many Indian politicians thrive on.

"He is honest to the core," A.K. Absar Hazarika said from Assam's state capital, Guwahati, where he is deputy commissioner. "In all the (five) years that he was finance minister of India, he never drew any salary."

As a youth, Singh was one of the millions of "partition refugees" who fled their homes in 1947 across the new border to escape the bloodletting that erupted when Britain granted the subcontinent independence, and carved out Pakistan as a separate state for Muslims.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf is also a partition refugee, who escaped with his family from Old Delhi. The two leaders will face difficult compromises during landmark peace talks set to begin in the coming days. Their similar backgrounds may improve the atmosphere, and the chances of a deal, if the talks reach a deadlock that only Singh and Musharraf can break.