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Soft-spoken economist Manmohan Singh sworn in as India's new prime minister

NEW DELHI (AP) _ Manmohan Singh, the Oxford-educated economist responsible for India's sweeping economic liberalization policies, was sworn in as prime minister Saturday, placing the Congress party back in control of the nation after eight years.

Singh, India's first prime minister from the country's influential Sikh minority, was sworn in by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, whose family comes from India's large Muslim minority.

His move to the top job ended a week of political turmoil in which Congress leader Sonia Gandhi _ a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty _ declined to become prime minister.

The shift in leadership came after Congress ousted Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Hindu-nationalist government in tumultuous elections held in stages during April and May.

With Gandhi looking on, Singh, 71, took the oath of office dressed in a light blue Sikh turban and white, high-neck cotton tunic.

Kalam also swore in 28 members of Singh's Cabinet and another 40 ministers of state and junior ministers in a ceremony at the pink sandstone presidential palace in the heart of New Delhi. The group included seven women and Bollywood star Sunil Dutt.

``The Cabinet is a reflection of India's diversity and richness,'' Singh said afterward. He acknowledged there were ``difficulties in finalizing the Cabinet'' and said portfolios would be announced Sunday.

Gandhi told reporters: ``The government will be stable. We'll be working on that.''

It was widely reported that Singh might assume a dual role as prime minister and finance minister, a position he held in a Congress government from 1991-96. During that time, he brought about the most wide-ranging finance and economic policy changes in the nation's history.

Among his reforms: slashing subsidies, partial privatization of state-run companies and inviting foreign investment. He opened up long-isolated India to outside investment and began a process of dismantling decades of socialist economic policies.

Because Congress failed to gain an outright majority in the 545-seat parliament, it will be forced to rely on two powerful communist parties for support from outside the coalition. That prospect spooked investors, causing them to send the Bombay Stock Exchange to an all-time low on fears the communists would slow economic reforms.

Markets have since stabilized, however, with Singh assuring investors that India would remain pro-growth.

On Friday, the leaders of the Congress-led group _ named the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA _ finished drafting an outline of the new government's political and economic priorities.

``The UPA government will give the highest priority to building closer political, economic and other ties with its neighbors in South Asia,'' said the draft, a copy of which was made available Saturday.

Efforts launched by the previous government to resolve India's decades-old dispute with Pakistan over the Himalayan region of Kashmir _ the cause of two wars between the nuclear rivals _ will be ``pursued systematically and on a sustained basis,'' it said.

The new government will continue to forge closer relations with the United States, but maintain the independence of India's foreign policy, the draft said.

The government's economic agenda will be market-friendly and pro-growth, but focus on the creation of new jobs, improved access to education and health care, and increased investment in agriculture, the draft said. There will be new taxes to double spending on education, it said.

Sonia Gandhi will continue to be the head of the Congress party. She is the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister assassinated by a suicide bomber in 1991, and a daughter-in-law of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, assassinated in 1984.

Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister after independence from Britain in 1947 who remained in power until his death in 1964.
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