Indian PM Singh makes "rapid progress" after surgery

NEW DELHI Sun Jan 25, 2009 2:34am EST

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks during a conference in New Delhi, December 19, 2008. REUTERS/B Mathur

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks during a conference in New Delhi, December 19, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/B Mathur

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was making "rapid progress" on Sunday after successful coronary bypass surgery and could be back at work well ahead of general elections expected before May.

"The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh ... talked to his family this morning. The doctors attending on the Prime Minister say that he is stable, comfortable and is making rapid progress," the government said in a statement.

Singh will be in hospital for at least a week and may be able to return to work in a month, doctors involved in his operation have said.

No acting prime minister has been named while Singh was in hospital, raising criticism the nuclear-armed power was rudderless while the 76-year-old leader recovered.

Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee will take over some prime ministerial responsibilities, as well as the finance portfolio, while Singh recovers.

But the lack of a clear deputy led to speculation the ruling Congress party did not want to give Mukherjee a public endorsement as acting prime minister, and overshadow other candidates within Congress battling to be Singh's successor.

"India is behaving like a monarchy where kings suspect that conspiracy is forever afoot to displace them," wrote commentator Meghnad Desai in The Sunday Express.

Singh's operation came just as his Congress party prepares its campaign for a general election by May. The main battle is between the Congress-led government and a coalition led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Despite his illness, some analysts say there is no clear alternative to Singh, a soft-spoken economist seen in India as a respected elder statesman.

Some members of Congress want Rahul Gandhi, heir to one of India's most powerful family dynasties, to be his successor, but others say Gandhi is too young and inexperienced to take over the reins of power.

Singh underwent bypass surgery in 1990 in Britain. He also underwent wrist surgery in 2006, a prostate gland surgery and a cataract removal procedure last year, officials said.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani sent bouquets of flowers to the prime minister on Saturday. India's relations with Pakistan have been tense since the November Mumbai attacks.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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