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Last Updated: Monday, 30 August, 2004, 10:03 GMT 11:03 UK
Indian PM's turbulent honeymoon

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online correspondent in Delhi

Manmohan Singh receives flowers as he arrives at the prime minister's residence
Analysts say that support for Mr Singh hinges on his clean image
India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is not that wide of the mark when he says that he has been denied the honeymoon period that most leaders get upon coming to office.

A hundred days into office, the economist-turned-technocrat-turned-politician is already facing some daunting challenges.

The controversy over tainted ministers in his cabinet (five of them are facing criminal charges), rising inflation, unrest in the north-eastern state of Manipur, and a contentious water dispute involving a Congress-ruled state has left Mr Singh with very little breathing space.

On the international front, an excruciatingly drawn-out hostage crisis involving three Indian lorry drivers in Iraq has also not helped matters.

He weakens the government by constantly reminding the people of the gap between his principles and political reality
Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Then there is the delicate business of placating carping Communist allies who see red when the government decides to woo foreign investment and slash provident fund interest rates in a country where there is virtually no social security net.

A recalcitrant main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not made things easier for Mr Singh by boycotting parliament on the issue of tainted ministers, and forcing the government to pass the budget without any discussion.

Clearly, it has been a baptism of fire for the prime minister, best-known as the architect of India's economic reform programme in the early 1990s while serving as the finance minister in a Congress government.

'Creative tension'

The soft-spoken, self-effacing Mr Singh was catapulted into India's hottest seat after Congress President Sonia Gandhi gave up her claim for the premier's post and chose Mr Singh after a surprise win in the general elections.

Critics say that Mr Singh is hobbled by the "two centres of power running the country."

Indian hostages held in Iraq
Indian hostages in Iraq have been one of Mr Singh's worries

They say Congress President Sonia Gandhi wields more power than the prime minister in many matters, and some ministers and leaders within the governing coalition are known to directly approach her with requests.

Prime ministerial aides, who ask not to be to be named, admit it is a unique arrangement.

They say the chain of command can get a bit blurred when party veterans, senior leaders and ageing loyalists have to be accommodated on different government boards or appointed as state governors.

"There is come creative tension here between Mrs Gandhi and Mr Singh," said an aide who asked not to be named. "Both could have a strong view on these appointments."

Aides point out that the 71-year-old Oxford-educated Mr Singh remains focused on his pet obsessions of reforming India's creaky and corrupt public institutions and rejuvenating poverty-stricken rural India.

Hard working premier

He is said to be extremely concerned over the country's yawning fiscal deficit and the perilous finances of virtually bankrupt states.

Analysts feel that his greatest triumph until now has been resisting pressure to rethink a recent free trade deal with Thailand - not a popular issue but one that had his stamp all over it.

Mr Singh is also very different from his predecessors.

Manipur protectors
Unrest in Manipur is another problem facing the prime minister

Often putting in 16 to 18 hour days, he is the most hardworking premier in recent times.

He shies away from publicity, and does not want his pictures to be splashed in traditionally wasteful government self-promotion advertisements.

Analysts say that the fact that Mr Singh is not a regular Indian politician is his greatest strength - and his biggest weakness.

"He weakens the government by constantly reminding the people of the gap between his principles and political reality," says political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta. "He will have to do more than simply remind people of the gap.

"He is not a private citizen and cannot define himself through a politics of lament."

Analysts point out that Mr Singh's real problems could eventually be with the way the Congress party itself works.

They say that many senior Congress ministers and chief ministers do not seem to be following the prime minister's authority, and talk in different voices.

The other, more serious problem, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, is the "old failing" of the Congress Party.

"It's a kind of casualness about issues," he said. "There seems to be still no sense of urgency about issues like unrest in the north-east and the water dispute.

"This casualness needs to be overcome," he says.

Mr Singh's aides say that his support among Indians hinges on his squeaky clean reputation.

That is practically impossible to find among the country's politicians, and will almost certainly be translated into popular votes for his party when and if the prime minister proves that his actions speak louder than words.

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