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By Toufiq Siddiqi

HONOLULU (May 23, 2009)—Last Friday, Manmohan Singh was once again sworn in as India’s prime minister, the first time in a quarter-century that an Indian PM who served a full five-year term will continue in that role. Prime Minister Singh enters his new term with a solid mandate resulting from the emphatic victory by his ruling Indian National Congress Party and its allies in the recent nationwide elections in the world’s largest democracy. The Congress greatly increased its seats from 145 to 205 in the Lok Sabha or “House of the People.” The coalition it leads – the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA – now has a comfortable majority in the 543-seat Lok Sabha with the help of just a few independents and some of the smaller regional parties. It will no longer need the support of the far-left parties that had frequently hindered reforms, nor of right-wing religious parties. Both the far left and far right were heavy losers in the elections.

Faced with a global economic crisis and a greatly reduced rate of economic growth, Indian voters clearly felt that a continuation of the steady hand of the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was to be preferred to the alternatives. The prime minister himself became a major factor in UPA’s victory when the opposition’s efforts to characterize him as soft and ineffective backfired, since the electorate considered him to be an honest man and an able administrator. As one Indian Muslim group in Eastern Uttar Pradesh told The Hindu newspaper, “Sixteen major banks have failed in the United States but not a single Indian bank has folded up, all because we had Manmohan Singh as prime minister.”

The role of the Nehru-Gandhi family is crucial in any election in India. Sonia Gandhi, the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, is generally considered to be India’s most powerful politician. As the president of the Congress Party, she decided five years ago to concentrate on rebuilding the venerable party rather than seeking the prime minister’s office herself. Her son Rahul has also emerged as a very effective and popular campaigner, and is widely expected to become prime minister within a few years, signaling a change to a new generation of Indians. He has declined to be a member of the new cabinet, and indicated his interest in strengthening the party and bringing in talented young people to provide the future leaders of the country.

The absence in this year’s campaign of highly emotional religious issues, which have frequently been exploited by right-wing parties, also worked in favor of the secular Congress Party. Further, in a country where more than 70 percent of the population still lives in rural areas, the government’s increased expenditures for rural development (about $45 billion) were clearly popular with the electorate.

What can we expect from the UPA government, with its new mandate, in areas of particular concern to the United States and its allies? The far-left parties in the last coalition had strongly opposed and delayed India’s civilian nuclear power agreement with the United States that was ultimately signed last year. This cooperation is now likely to accelerate, and India’s overall trade with the United States is likely to grow further.

India and Pakistan were close to a far-reaching agreement before the Mumbai attacks last November. That process could be renewed now that the more hawkish parties in India have been defeated. The U.S. has been keen that Pakistan move more of its troops from the Indian border to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban along its border with Afghanistan and within Northern Pakistan, but this can only take place when India-Pakistan relations are good. The comfortable majority that Prime Minister Singh now enjoys, and the recent actions in Pakistan to take on the militants more aggressively, may make it easier for both countries to explore further avenues of cooperation. These could, for example, include the development of road and rail links with Central and West Asia, thereby facilitating the imports of energy and other resources that are urgently needed for the continued economic development of both countries.

Toufiq Siddiqi is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the East-West Center. He received his early education in India and Pakistan, and has written extensively on the need for energy and environmental cooperation in South Asia. He can be reached at [email protected] .

A shorter version of this commentary originally appeared in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on May 23, 2009.

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