Lauded Abroad, Indian Leader Is Besieged at Home

But if he is lauded overseas, Mr. Singh is now under attack at home, as critics blame his administration for indecision and inaction. His government is besieged by corruption scandals, runaway inflation and bickering among senior ministers. Amid the clamor, Mr. Singh has often seemed silent or aloof, even as his political enemies have portrayed him as the weak captain of a rudderless administration.

The loud criticism of Mr. Singh, who sits atop the coalition government led by the Indian National Congress Party, is partly the white noise of India’s raucous democracy, and partly a reprise of old complaints.

But the public perception of disarray is one reason the prime minister made a show of reshuffling his cabinet on Wednesday afternoon.

In a nationally televised ceremony from India’s presidential palace, the new members of Mr. Singh’s cabinet were sworn into office. Changes were made in several ministries plagued with poor performance or scandals during the past year, including those responsible for aviation, roads, sports, petroleum and coal. But the major figures overseeing foreign affairs, finance, home security and defense remained in place.

Many analysts say Mr. Singh must recharge his administration to tackle major issues like food security, power supply and infrastructure, as well as to push through reforms on land and governance. More than that, they say, he must seize the moment to address larger, systemic failures in governing that foster corruption and could eventually undermine India’s aspirations to become a global power.

Yet even as Mr. Singh reshuffled his lineup, most ministers were moved rather than fired. M.S. Gill, whose performance was sharply criticized during the staging of the Commonwealth Games, was downgraded to a lesser ministry overseeing statistics. Kamal Nath, who was regarded as ineffective at the critical roads ministry, was moved to the ministry of urban development.

For now, India’s economy is sizzling, growing at roughly 9 percent a year. Many economists are forecasting a long boom that, if handled properly, could transform the nation. Many Indian entrepreneurs have learned to thrive despite governmental dysfunction, but few analysts believe India can thrive long term if the government maintains the status quo.

“There are so many uncertainties over the next four or five years that if you don’t fix things while the going is good, it is going to be that much harder, later,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research, a leading independent research institute in New Delhi. “Given the historic opportunity that India has, they are frittering away precious time.”

Mr. Singh, now 78, usually floats above the rancor of India’s daily politics. Trained as an economist, he is considered a father of the economic reforms credited for setting off India’s current boom. As finance minister, beginning in 1991, he dismantled socialist-era restraints and oversaw India’s transition to a more open, market-based economy. By 2004, after Sonia Gandhi had guided the Congress Party back to power, she made Mr. Singh her surprise choice for prime minister.

Indeed, Mr. Singh’s critics have long disparaged him as a caretaker prime minister beholden to Mrs. Gandhi, the Congress Party president, and to her son, Rahul Gandhi, the party’s heir apparent as prime minister. Yet Mr. Singh proved otherwise, especially when Congress Party leaders and coalition allies wavered on a landmark civilian nuclear agreement with the United States. Mr. Singh threatened to resign if the Congress Party did not back him on the deal — which it promptly did.

In the 2009 elections, opposition leaders in the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., depicted Mr. Singh as India’s weakest prime minister, but voters re-elected his Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. When the new government took office, public expectations were high.

Now, 20 months later, the Congress Party has suffered setbacks in elections in the state of Bihar and is wounded by corruption scandals linked to the Commonwealth Games, the government’s allotment of 2G telecommunications spectrum and other cases of official malfeasance.

Mr. Singh must no doubt operate at the mercy of the imperfections of India’s coalition politics. But his cabinet has witnessed periodic infighting, while the prime minister himself has seemed slow to respond to certain crises, his critics say.

When Kashmir erupted in violence and demonstrations last summer, Mr. Singh waited for months before strongly intervening. And though he has not been personally linked to any scandals, he has been criticized for his inability, or unwillingness, to crack the whip on corruption and push through reforms.

“In spite of a clean personal image,” said Nirmala Sitharaman, a B.J.P. spokeswoman, “he is heading a government that is responsible for unbelievable amounts of treasury loss.”

Sanjaya Baru, a former spokesman for the prime minister, said the scandals had come as Mr. Singh’s political influence already seemed diminished. He was forced to make a public reversal after making an overture to Pakistan that apparently exceeded the dictates of other Congress Party leaders. His signature achievement — the nuclear deal — was passed with a liability clause that may prevent many foreign nuclear suppliers from building power plants in India.  

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