Indian PM to be sworn in today

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to be sworn in for a second term Friday, following the resounding election victory of his Congress-led alliance.

The 76-year-old, soft-spoken economist and his 60-strong cabinet were scheduled to take their oath of office from Indian president Pratibha Patil at the presidential palace in New Delhi on Friday evening.

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.

In recent days, Singh and Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi have been bargaining hard with their electoral allies over the distribution of cabinet positions, with discussions spilling over into the early hours of Friday.

One partner from southern India, the regional DMK party, was demanding nine cabinet positions, while the Congress was willing to concede only six.

"We still have not reached a breakthrough with the DMK. Talks with some allies are continuing. Some cabinet berths have been worked out, some others are still being discussed," a senior Congress leader told AFP.

"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," the leader 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 was likely to offer its allies the railways, food 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.