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Singh: Reform with 'human face'

Congress Party supporters shout anti-Bharatiya Janata Party slogans in New Delhi.
start quoteShe's the queen, she is appointing a regent to run some of the government's business. But it is she who will be in charge.end quote
-- Mani Shankar Aiyer, senior Congress leader
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NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- In his first address to the Indian nation, prime minister-elect Manmohan Singh said the country needed reform but with a "human face."

Speaking before markets opened on Thursday, Singh sought to reassure investors he was committed to reform, saying the "21st century needs to be India's century."

The 71-year-old technocrat said while development was his priority, the purpose of reforms was to do as much as possible to help the average Indian.

"Reforms are needed, I've always said that, but economic reforms with a human face that give India's common man a real hope," he said.

"We need economic and social development for all, not just for a few."

The Congress party won the biggest upset in India's political history last week by toppling the ruling Hindu nationalists. They did this by campaigning for the country's poor.

But India's markets have been on a roller-coaster ride since Sonia Gandhi's Congress party won, with stocks plummeting 11 percent on "Black Monday," as the Mumbai exchange experienced its biggest pounding in its 129-year history.

Investors were worried that any new government would only be able to rule with support from pro-labor, anti-privatization Communists, which may block or slow key reforms in Asia's third-largest economy.

But stocks have risen on news that the reformist Singh will take top spot and the belief he can balance the demands of leftists and businesspeople.

On Thursday they held steady, implying the political uncertainty of the past week is moderating.

Former central bank governor and finance minister, Singh was the architect of India's economic reforms in the early 1990s and his work helped to transform the world's largest democracy into a global power.

An Oxford university-trained economist, Singh is set to become the country's first Sikh prime minister when he is sworn in on Saturday. (Singh profile)

He got the top spot after Congress party leader Gandhi declined the job, despite some last minute lobbying from members of her party, some of whom resigned in a bid to pressure her to reverse her surprise decision.

Shops closed down across India on Wednesday as part of a campaign to persuade Gandhi to reconsider and thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of her house in New Delhi, chanting their support. (On the scene)

But Gandhi stayed firm and after a meeting with Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam on Wednesday, Singh was invited to form the next government.

Singh said his new government would seek "most friendly" relations with its neighbors, especially Pakistan. Moving forward the peace process with India's nuclear rival would be a priority, he said.

Senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyer told CNN that Gandhi would still be closely involved at the top level despite not being prime minister.

Gandhi -- a Roman Catholic born in Italy -- "humbly declined" to seek the prime minister's job on Tuesday after what she described as personal attacks on her heritage and faith. (Gandhi declines PM post)

"She's the queen, she is appointing a regent to run some of the government's business. But it is she who will be in charge," he said.

"Sonia Gandhi is going to be a key element in the building of any consensus for the basis on which a democratic prime minister has to make his decisions."

CNN's Ram Ramgopal, New Delhi Bureau Chief Satinder Bindra and producer Suhasini Haidar contributed to this report

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