India PM turns 80 with reformist 'mojo' back

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh marks his 80th birthday on Wednesday in fighting fashion with signs he has rediscovered his "mojo" as a reformer after being written off as a dithering under-achiever.

The soft-spoken Singh, India's first Sikh prime minister, is widely expected to stand down at the next elections due to be held in 2014.

While he earned a place in the history books as the man who lit the fuse for India's rapid growth in the 1990s when he was finance minister, his reputation has taken a battering as premier -- especially since his 2009 re-election.

Time magazine branded him "The Underachiever" on its front cover earlier this year while Singh's office got into a spat with the Washington Post after it said he had "transformed himself from an object of respect to one of ridicule".

But a sudden blitz of reforms designed to revive an economy in which growth is stuck around three-year lows has also given his own image a shot in the arm with the Economic Times proclaiming he had got his "mojo back".

And his stock has also risen sharply with the business sector, which warmly applauded his moves to open the retail, aviation and broadcasting sectors to more foreign investment.

According to Adi Godrej, president of the Confederation of Indian Industry, the premier has "unambiguously sent a message that the government is determined to see through the reforms".

Singh, who always wears a blue turban, became premier when Congress took power in 2004, ending a long stint in the political wilderness.

His first term was relatively smooth-sailing, with growth almost reaching double digits.

But after success in the 2009 polls, his reputation has been hit during a second term marked by a litany of corruption scandals and policy paralysis caused in part by an impasse in parliament with the main opposition BJP party.

Deepak Lalwani, head of India-focused financial consultancy Lalcap in London, said Singh's sudden burst of activity signalled a desire to salvage his reputation before he leaves office, employing a cricketing metaphor.

"In his last innings he would like to leave on a strong wicket -- he wants to leave a legacy that he was able to revive the economy again," Lalwani told AFP.

Born in 1932 in what is now Pakistan, Singh moved to India when Britain split the subcontinent at independence in 1947. His father, a poor vendor with 10 children, joked his son would become prime minister because he studied so hard.

The reformist zeal he would later display at the finance ministry -- where he embraced free markets in the socialist-style economy and cut through red tape -- was honed during his time as a governor of the International Monetary Fund.

He became the surprise choice as premier in 2004 when his boss, Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, decided that she did not want to head the government of the world's largest democracy after her election triumph.

Looming large over his birthday celebrations on Wednesday is another Gandhi -- Sonia's son Rahul -- who has borne the burden of expectation ever since his father Rajiv was assassinated in 1991.

Observers are watching to see whether Rahul, now 42, finally accepts Singh's offer of a cabinet berth in a major cabinet reshuffle expected soon, after a coalition ally pulled out of government last week.

Rahul, whose fumbling parliamentary performances have sparked big questions about his suitability for the premier's job, has never declared outright he wants to claim his inheritance and lead India.

But other young party leaders have not been allowed to take a prominent role in what analysts say is a move to ensure no-one outshines the Gandhi scion.

Since independence, power in Congress has threaded from Rahul's great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first premier, to his grandmother Indira Gandhi, who was slain by Sikh bodyguards, and in tragedy-studded succession to his father Rajiv, who was blown up by a Tamil suicide bomber.

Congress party billboards drill home the message of succession -- showing the elderly Singh, beaming mother Sonia and in front, the fresh-faced Rahul.

Critics decry the need for continuation of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, seeing it as a sign of political immaturity and incompatible with India's superpower aspirations.

But Gandhi family biographer Rasheed Kidwai told AFP that "Rahul is very much in the frame to succeed" when Singh calls time on his lengthy political career.

"It will all start unfolding three to six months before the (2014) elections when the prime minister will seek a mandate for generational change to hand things on," Kidwai said.

Source: AFP

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