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India's new prime minister readies government as allies jockey for appointments

NEW DELHI (AP) _ India's new prime minister met with his coalition partners Friday to work on forming a new government, and officials denied media reports of squabbling over which parties will get key ministerial posts.

The Congress party, which leads the coalition, is new to this scenario: It has never worked in a coalition and in the past had ridiculed outgoing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's multiparty alliance.

The incoming prime minister, Manmohan Singh, held meetings with several of his allies through Thursday and was in more meetings Friday, trying to reach common ground on distributing assignments.

Singh is expected to take the oath of office Saturday at the head of a government backed by 11 political parties that have joined Congress in a coalition, and six others, including the communists, that have pledged support in Parliament.

``We are in discussion with allies,'' senior Congress leader Kamal Nath told reporters Friday after meeting Singh. ``Partners can have different views in a coalition. It does not indicate any bitterness. We will carry our allies along.''

Dealmaking was under way with the allies over the number of ministerial berths they would get, and the ministries. The most coveted are home, defense, finance, external affairs, civil aviation, telecommunications and other economy-related ministries.

In the past, new positions had to be created to accommodate the large number of demands. The two largest communist parties, which now command 62 seats in the 545-member lower house of Parliament, will exert considerable pressure on policies, political observers said.

There are 82 ministerial positions; Congress is likely to reserve 40 for itself.

Newspapers reported Friday that Laloo Prasad Yadav, a powerful alliance partner with 21 seats in the new legislature, was upset at being refused the home ministry.

``I am hurt by all this talk,'' Yadva told reporters. ``There is no squabbling. The process of ministry formation is on.''

However, Yadav said he was considering whether to join the government, or to provide it legislative support from outside the alliance, like the communist groups.

``We keep reading in newspapers that so-and-so demanded this ministry, so-and-so demanded another,'' said Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party, a Congress ally. ``This is utter nonsense. We are only concerned about the welfare of the people we represent.''

The swearing-in ceremony for Manmohan Singh was not scheduled for Friday because it was the 13th anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the late husband of Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi.

On Friday morning, Singh, Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, placed marigold and rose petals on the slain leader's memorial in New Delhi and encircled it barefoot as young Hindu monks chanted hymns. He was slain at a 1991 election rally by a suicide bomber in southern Tamil Nadu state.

His appointment Wednesday by India's President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam ended a week of political turmoil in which Gandhi, the Italian-born widow who leads the country's most powerful political dynasty, declined the job but remained head of the party that will lead the new government.

In the days after Congress and its allies scored a surprise electoral victory over the incumbent Hindu nationalist-led coalition, the outgoing government's supporters bitterly protested the prospect of Gandhi becoming India's first foreign-born leader. Markets fluctuated wildly over fears of an unstable new coalition.

In his first public comments since his election defeat, Vajpayee praised Singh and said he was ``somewhat surprised'' by the election results, a newspaper report said Friday.

``I wish Dr. Manmohan Singh well. He's a learned, practical man who understands the problems of the country very well,'' Vajpayee told The Indian Express newspaper. ``And he's very loyal to the tasks he takes up.''
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