Mon, May 24, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Singh set to announce Cabinet

POLITICS India's prime minister has been negotiating with his new ruling coalition for days as he prepares to announce how a host of Cabinet portfolios are to be filled

AP , NEW DELHI

A Pakistani newspaper vendor arranges magazines featuring the picture of new Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a shop in Islamabad yesterday. Singh, the 71-year-old soft-spoken Sikh economist who became prime minister of the world's largest democracy on Saturday, was born in the Pakistani village of Gah in Chakwal district, some 80km south of the capital Islamabad.

PHOTO: AFP

Manmohan Singh, India's first non-Hindu prime minister, was preparing to announce his Cabinet yesterday, after days of political wrangling within his new ruling coalition.

Singh, 71, faced his first test as India's new leader when suspected Islamic militants blew up a paramilitary bus yesterday in insurgency-wracked Jammu-Kashmir state, killing at least 28 people and wounding 15 others.

In the new government's first meeting yesterday led by Singh, a resolution was passed condemning the attack, Cabinet member Ramvilas Paswan told reporters.

The new prime minister has vowed to tackle the crisis in Kashmir, where militants have been fighting for 14 years for independence or a merger with Pakistan. He also has said he wants "most friendly" relations with Pakistan, with whom India has fought two wars over control of Kashmir.

The deadly attack came less than 24 hours after Singh was sworn in Saturday, putting his Congress party back in control of the predominantly Hindu nation after eight years on the sidelines. His swearing-in also ended a week of political turmoil in which Italian-born Congress leader Sonia Gandhi declined to become prime minister.

Although 28 Cabinet members and 40 ministers of state and junior ministers were also sworn in Saturday, Singh said there were "difficulties in finalizing the Cabinet" and their portfolios were to be announced yesterday.

Singh was expected to assume the post of finance minister, a position he held from 1991 to 1996, when he introduced the most wide-ranging economic reforms in the nation's history.

During yesterday's meeting, it was also decided that parliament's new session will be held June 2 to June 10, and President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam will address a joint session of the upper and lower houses of parliament on June 7.

Also yesterday, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said Pakistan and India agreed to postpone nuclear talks originally set for this week so the new Indian government has time to settle into power.

Singh, India's first prime minister from the Sikh minority, replaced Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose Hindu-nationalist government was ousted by the Congress party in tumultuous elections last month and this month.

Because Congress failed to gain an outright majority in the 545-seat Parliament, it will be forced to rely on two powerful Communist parties for support from outside its coalition. That prospect spooked investors, causing them to send the Bombay Stock Exchange plunging on fears the Communists would slow economic reforms.

Markets have since stabilized, however, with Singh assuring investors that India would remain pro-growth.

Singh began his first full day in office by visiting memorials in New Delhi for four former prime ministers -- Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi -- and independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Sonia Gandhi will continue to be the head of the Congress party. She is the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 1991, and a daughter-in-law of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, assassinated in 1984.

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