NEWSMAKER - "Reluctant king" Manmohan Singh set to become PM again

NEW DELHI Sat May 16, 2009 10:03pm IST

Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh addresses the media before his meeting with Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi at her residence in New Delhi May 16, 2009. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh addresses the media before his meeting with Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi at her residence in New Delhi May 16, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Described as a "reluctant king" in his first stint as India's prime minister, the quietly-spoken 76-year-old Manmohan Singh has defied critics to emerge as one of India's most successful political leaders.

Singh's Congress-led coalition headed to a clear victory on Saturday over the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance. His coalition was about 20 seats short of a parliamentary majority, better than his first 2004 victory.

No other leader since Jawaharlal Nehru, a founding father of Indian independence, has managed to win re-election after serving a full five-year term as prime minister.

It is all a huge change from a few weeks ago, when Singh came under pressure even from the Congress party's own allies in the run-up to the election to cede the post of prime minister after criticism of his perceived weak leadership.

When Singh underwent heart bypass surgery in January, many critics thought he would be unable to lead Congress to victory in a mammoth, month-long general election.

But backed by Congress party head Sonia Gandhi, who many see as the real power behind the throne, he has held steadfast.

Singh now has the chance to follow through on the reforms he first initiated in opening up India's economy in 1991.

With the communists weakened after losing their four decade-old stranglehold in West Bengal, Singh may be free to push stalled reforms, from privatisations to the liberalisation of the financial sector.

The prime minister still faces huge challenges.

Asia's third-largest economy is faced with its slowest growth in six years, a rising fiscal deficit and increasing instability in rival Pakistan.

The Mumbai attacks, which killed at least 166 people in India's financial hub, hit the brakes on peace talks with Pakistan.

RELUCTANT PM

Singh became prime minister five years ago when Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, who led the party to a surprise victory, declined the job fearing her Italian ancestry would be used by Hindu-nationalist opponents to attack the government.

A former finance minister and Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor, Singh also took on the job of finance minister last December in the midst of an economic slowdown, after naming Palaniappan Chidambaram to lead the Home Ministry after the Mumbai attacks.

This election is not the first time that Singh has been underestimated.

Last year, he stood up to his communist allies over a civilian nuclear energy deal with the United States, securing an alternative majority and winning a tense vote of confidence in July after the left withdrew their parliamentary support.

Born into a poor Sikh family in a part of British-ruled India now in Pakistan, Singh studied by candlelight to win scholarships to Cambridge and Oxford, earning a doctorate with a thesis on the role of exports and free trade in India's economy.

As India's first Sikh prime minister, he made a public apology in parliament for the 1984 riots in which some 3,000 Sikhs were killed.

Known for his simple lifestyle Singh, who has three daughters, has never won an election and sits in the Rajya Sabha.

During his stint as finance minister from 1991 to 1996, Singh saved an economy from a balance of payments crisis and unveiled far-reaching reforms that opened insular India to the world.

In his maiden speech he famously quoted Victor Hugo, saying "no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come".

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