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India's Congress-Led Government Celebrates First Year in Power

Indian PM Manmohan Singh, right, greets Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, at the remembrance ceremony of former PM Rajiv Gandhi on his 14th death anniversary
India's Congress Party-led coalition government is holding low-key celebrations Sunday to mark its first year in power.

The Congress Party's surprise election victory a year ago over the ruling Hindu nationalist coalition raised concerns about how it would govern.

The once-dominant party of Indian politics had to forge an unwieldy alliance of 17 parties to take office. The new prime minister, Manmohan Singh, a soft-spoken economist with no political base, was handpicked by the Congress Party's powerful leader, Sonia Gandhi, after she declined the post. And his government's survival depended on communist parties that oppose the free-market policies that have given the Indian economy fresh momentum.

Political editor Hiranmay Karlekar of the Pioneer newspaper says, given these constraints, the government's biggest achievement is its stability.

"It has held together, which is saying a lot, because, considering the fact you have the Left Front, which is ideologically poles apart from the government in its policies on the economic front. They have still held together," said Mr. Karlekar. "That is an important thing, which has given a political stability of sorts."

Other analysts say Mr. Singh has not fared badly on other counts. The economy continues its steady growth, and a host of market reforms have been implemented, despite opposition from leftist parties.

That does not mean the communists have not left their mark. They have slowed the government's program to sell off state-owned companies and have stalled labor reform.

Analysts also say that an alliance that wrested power on a promise of giving a "New Deal" to millions of poor people left out of the country's economic progress has made little headway toward that goal.

The government promised to provide more schools, better health facilities and more credit for the rural poor. It said it would ensure 100 days of employment in a year for every poor family. Independent political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says, on most of these fronts, there has been a lot of "positive rhetoric, but little movement."

"There has been an easing of rural credit, but the really big centerpiece - the National Employment Guarantee Bill - has not been enacted," he said. "We are still waiting for action on that front, and the issue of rural jobs may well be very decisive, in terms of the state of the government in the next general election four years from now," said Mr. Rangarajan.

On a personal front, Mr. Singh is seen as the "most honest" politician in a country where corruption is considered rife. He has won wide praise for bringing stature and dignity to his office. He also has led efforts to make civil servants more accountable.

But analysts say Mr. Singh has not been able to put his own stamp on the government. Mr. Rangarajan says that may be because real political power lies with Sonia Gandhi, the party head.

"There is a sort of power-sharing between him and Sonia Gandhi, and somewhere, perhaps, that has played a role in not giving the government the kind of coherence and urgency, which it requires to have," he said.

The brightest spot in the past year has been foreign policy. Mr. Singh has carried forward the previous government's initiative in forging peace with arch-rival Pakistan, and building stronger relations with the United States.

But his government's future will largely depend on how he handles political allies and domestic issues. Communist parties boycotted the first year celebrations on Sunday, an indication they will not give the alliance an easy time. Some of the government's allies are embroiled in corruption scandals, making it a soft target for the opposition.

At the same time, Mr. Singh must also meet the expectations of a huge country, where everyone - businessmen, professionals, the middle class and the poor - is impatient for change.