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Singh takes reins as leader of India

Plans to increase spending, taxes

NEW DELHI -- Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's new coalition government took power yesterday, Saturday, promising more money for social programs and more taxes to pay for them.

Singh, India's first Sikh prime minister, was sworn in by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a Muslim, and father of the country's nuclear missile program. But as negotiations on Cabinet appointments continued in the hours before the ceremony, it was clear that Italian-born Sonia Gandhi remains a powerful force behind the new government after suddenly stepping aside as its candidate for prime minister last week.

Gandhi, the widow of assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, is still president of the Congress Party. It leads the coalition of more than a dozen parties that will support the government but not sit in the Cabinet.

Singh, 71, was at Gandhi's residence until around 2 a.m. yesterday Saturday negotiating which coalition partner would get what share of the Cabinet posts, and who would get the most powerful positions. After the leaders settled on 62 Cabinet members, the number swelled to 67 in the final hours before they and Singh took the oath of office.

Singh said he would announce the Cabinet members' portfolios today, saturday

but local news media reports said the new prime minister also might head the sensitive finance and defense ministries until he could find acceptable ministers. Singh, sworn in beneath glittering chandeliers in the presidential mansion, is the 13th prime minister to lead the world's largest democracy since independence from Britain in 1947.

Pranab Mukherjee, a former finance and foreign minister, was the first member of Singh's Cabinet to take the oath of office. Local reports say Mukherjee is expected to get the powerful Home Ministry, which would put him in charge of several key security forces.

The position was held by Lal Krishna Advani, a hard-line Hindu nationalist, in former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's government. Advani is expected to take over as leader of the opposition if Vajpayee, 79, retires from politics.

Singh's foreign minister is expected to be Natwar Singh, a former ambassador to Pakistan and head of the Congress Party's foreign policy section. The incoming foreign minister immediately will be tested by landmark peace talks with neighboring Pakistan, whose President Pervez Musharraf is pressing for a quick solution to the 57-year conflict over the divided territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

Laloo Prasad Yadav, the former chief minister of impoverished Bihar state, is expected to get a senior Cabinet post even though he is still fighting criminal charges stemming from the alleged theft of $280 million from the state treasury that was supposed to help farmers feed their livestock.

Yadav, the fifth minister sworn in yesterday, has gone to jail at least five times, and spent more than 200 days behind bars in connection with the investigation into what Indians call the 1996 ''fodder scam case."

Singh, an Oxford-educated economist with long experience in public service, will need sharp political skills to keep such a diverse coalition together.

He is known as an unassuming, hardworking consensus builder, but he is a technocrat, not a professional politician. Singh has never won a seat to India's lower house, but sits in the upper assembly whose members are chosen by state legislatures.

The Cabinet includes at least six females, two of them low caste, and seven Muslims. Around 140 million of India's 1 billion people are Muslims.

Singh's United Progressive Alliance coalition government has pledged to end what it says were policies of Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist government that widened the sectarian divide.

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