, NEW DELHI, May 22 – Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to be sworn in for a second term on Friday, as a row between his Congress party and its allies over cabinet posts threatened to taint their election triumph.
The 76-year-old, soft-spoken economist and his cabinet were scheduled to take their oath of office from Indian president Pratibha Patil at the presidential palace in New Delhi on Friday evening.
A dispute over ministry allocations remained unresolved hours before the swearing-in, with a key regional ally from southern India, the DMK party, threatening to quit the alliance.
Singh is the first prime minister since the country’s post-independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru to be returned to office after completing a full term.
Congress had campaigned hard on a poverty-alleviation platform for India’s rural millions, and voters also responded to the image of Singh as a steady, pragmatic leader capable of steering the country through an economic downturn.
His coalition won 262 seats in the 543-member national parliament, just 10 short of the 272 needed for a working majority.
The alliance quickly garnered pledges of support from independents and others to take its voting strength to 322.
But Singh and Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi have had to bargain hard with their electoral allies over the distribution of cabinet positions.
The sticking point in talks with the party’s biggest ally, the DMK, has been over its demand for nine cabinet positions with the Congress willing to concede only six.
"We both have differing perceptions on this," a Congress leader told AFP as Singh met senior party colleagues at his residence to try and finalise his cabinet.
"The prime minister thinks the people have spoken in favour of good governance and he intends to focus on performance and accountability while choosing his ministers. That is his prerogative," another Congress source said.
Miffed by the Congress stand, senior DMK leaders flew back to Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu state, saying that they would withdraw from the coalition but extend outside support to Singh’s government, reports said.
The Congress party won 206 seats in its own right and will retain the key portfolios for finance, defence, foreign affairs and internal security.
Observers said it would offer its allies the railways, food, information technology and telecommunications ministries.
"These are infrastructure ministries with the potential of catering to audiences back home and therefore ideal for regional parties," said political analyst and author Rasheed Kidwai earlier this week.
Outgoing foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee is tipped to be the new finance minister, while Palaniappan Chidambaram is expected to retain his top post at the Home Ministry.
Media reports said Kamal Nath could be moved from trade to the foreign ministry while Defence Minister A.K. Antony was to keep his position.
Singh, who has stressed a "responsive" and "efficient" government during its second term, also made a case for major economic reforms during a speech to the newly elected Congress MPs this week.
Known as "Mr Clean" for his incorruptible image and the "father of India’s economic reforms" for unshackling the Indian economy in 1991, Singh has steered the economy through a period of nine percent growth in recent years.
The boom has slowed due to the global financial crisis but growth is still targeted at around six percent this year, which would make India the world’s second fastest expanding economy after China.