The successor to Dr Manmohan Singh as India's next prime minister will have the toughest of jobs. Despite a reputation as a reformer and consensus-builder, many of his pledges will be left undone when elections are held before the end of May. The economy is performing half as well as in 2009, inflation is in double digits, the rupee is in the doldrums, corruption, poverty and government red tape remain rife, foreign investors are staying away and relations with neighbours, especially China, continue to be strained. None of those so far in the running to replace the 81-year-old leader has the well-rounded résumé necessary for so challenging a task.
An early front runner is the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's Narendra Modi, who has brought about an economic miracle in the western state of Gujarat since being elected chief minister 12 years ago. Nowhere else in India are growth rates as consistently good, income levels as high, industrial development as strong or the agricultural sector doing as well. But there are minuses, among them his rampant Hindu nationalism and a 2002 riot in the state in which more than 1,000 Muslims were killed by Hindu-majority crowds. He has no record of willingly working with opposition groups.
Singh wants to be succeeded by Rahul Gandhi, the vice-president of his Congress party and the heir of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty. But the 43-year-old bachelor has never sought a government job, lacks ministerial experience and is shy of the media. The party, headed by his mother, fared poorly in recent state elections. Among its drubbings was in the capital, Delhi, where the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party, barely a year old, has gained power and its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, a political novice, has taken over as chief minister.
There is nothing surprising about Singh's decision not to stand for re-election; he has already served 10 years in a job that would be daunting for someone half his age. Being prime minister of the world's biggest democracy and second most populous country will never be easy. He saved India from financial collapse when finance minister in 1991 by instituting long-overdue reforms. But anyone steering the shake-up that is now needed is hampered by a complex political system in which agreement has to be reached with dozens of parties that reflect India's caste, class and ethnic diversity. Coalitions are an inevitability. His successor will need tolerance and an ability to build bridges, but also a strong will to succeed.