NEW DELHI -- Manmohan Singh, whose humble origins inspired him to start the reforms that opened up India's economy, was named prime minister yesterday, ending weeks of turmoil that culminated with Sonia Gandhi's refusal to take the post.
"I feel humble that the nation has given me this mandate," Singh, 71, said outside the official residence of President A.P.J. Kalam, who asked Singh to form a government. A date for the inauguration will be set later, he said.
Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, who decided not to become prime minister despite leading an alliance of parties to victory in elections that ended last Thursday, stood at Singh's side, smiling broadly and looking very relieved.
"I have been under tremendous pressure from my colleagues, my party workers, and many, many people throughout the country," she said. "Naturally, being under such pressure sort of takes you down a bit.
"But now that everything is over, I am very happy," she added. "I think our country will be safe in Dr. Manmohan Singh's hands."
Gandhi, 57, is the widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Tomorrow marks the 13th anniversary of his assassination.
As hundreds of dejected pro-Gandhi demonstrators continued yesterday evening to demand she become prime minister, her members of Parliament from her Congress Party endorsed Singh as their candidate for prime minister.
Singh and Gandhi then met Kalam for the second day in a row, this time to say their United Progressive Alliance was prepared to form a government with Singh as its prime minister.
Gandhi, who became an Indian citizen in 1984, was her party's first choice for prime minister. But she suddenly backed out Tuesday under a relentless attack by Hindu nationalists, who argued that she is a foreigner unfit to govern the world's largest democracy.
Several party leaders offered their resignations yesterday in a final, desperate effort to persuade Gandhi to change her mind and become prime minister.
Although Gandhi is no longer parliamentary leader of her alliance, she remains president of the Congress Party, which will head the new coalition government. In a written statement to party workers yesterday, she promised to remain active in politics.
Singh, who will be India's first Sikh prime minister, was Gandhi's choice for the job. He is an internationally respected economist, and was the architect of India's economic reforms as finance minister in the early 1990s. He has a master's and doctorate degree from Oxford University and has worked for various UN agencies. A public servant since 1971, he is a former head of the nation's central bank.
Singh has never won a seat in India's lower house of Parliament, called the Lok Sabha, or House of the People. Instead, the state Legislature in the small northeastern state of Assam chose him to sit in the weaker upper house, called the Rajya Sabha, or Council of States.
People who have known and worked with Singh for more than a decade describe him as a sort of antipolitician, a quiet, hardworking man and a deep thinker who shuns the perks and corruption that many Indian politicians thrive on.
"He is honest to the core," A.K. Absar Hazarika said from Assam's state capital, Guwahati, where he is deputy commissioner. "In all the [five] years that he was finance minister of India, he never drew any salary.
"He is a very simple man," Hazarika added. "He doesn't own any flashy cars, he doesn't own any buildings -- nothing. I don't think there is any quality that the opposition can really exploit."
As a youth, Singh was one of the millions of "partition refugees" who fled their homes in 1947 across the new border to escape the bloodletting that erupted when Britain granted the subcontinent independence, and carved out Pakistan as a separate state for Muslims.
President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is also a partition refugee, who escaped with his family from Old Delhi. The two leaders will face difficult compromises during landmark peace talks set to begin in the coming days