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India Swears In PM as South Asian Leaders Watch

Narendra Modi’s decisive electoral victory signals a tectonic shift in Indian politics, but it’s still an open question whether the new prime minister will favor hardline nationalist policies over critical economic reforms, analysts tell VOA.

Modi was sworn in to office on Monday in an elaborate ceremony in New Delhi attended by, among others, Narwaz Sharif, the prime minister of regional rival, Pakistan.

The invitation for Sharif to attend the ceremony was seen as a magnanimous gesture by Modi, analysts say.

Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi
  • Sworn in as prime minister on May 26, 2014
  • Member of main Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party
  • As a child, helped his father sell tea at a railway station
  • Became chief minister of Gujarat state in 2001
  • Criticized for handling of deadly Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002
  • 63 years old; unmarried; has no children
Modi’s past, however, and the Muslim-hostile policies of his Bharatiya Janata Party, has made some experts worry that his ascension to power could mean South Asia will see another dangerous spiral of tension between the two nuclear-armed adversaries.

“Which Modi are we going to get?” Michael Kugelman, a scholar at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said during the VOA news program ‘Encounter.’ “Modi the hardline Hindu nationalist or Modi the pragmatic economic reformer?”

The BJP won a landslide victory over his main opponent, the Congress Party, giving the BJP an outright majority of seats in parliament. That means Modi’s government won’t be hobbled by coalition deals with other regional parties.

Lisa Curtis, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think-tank, said on the Encounter program that despite the conciliatory gestures, there are hardline currents under the surface in both Pakistan and India.

“If we God forbid have some kind of major attack in India, I think we’re going to see a tougher response from a BJP government than we would have expected to see under Congress,” Curtis said.

Modi wasn’t looking to pick a fight with Pakistan, Curtis said.

But, she said, Sharif “will have to ensure that the military backs him in anything he does with India. He’s learned the hard way that he certainly [can’t] defy the Pakistan military. In terms of the Pakistan military calculations, it’s unclear if they’re interested in having Pakistan engage a BJP government or not.”

Modi, 63, is the long-time governor of the western state of Gujarat, which was racked by sectarian violence in 2002 that killed hundreds of Muslims and Hindus. Many blamed Modi for not doing more to stop the rioting. A Supreme Court panel later cleared him of complicity.

Analysts say BJP’s victory was a rebuke to the Congress Party, which many voters blamed for the stagnating economy and a raft of corruption scandals.

“It showed people were tired of the Congress Party, the malaise that had set in with that government, the sense that the Congress government was out of touch with people’s concerns, about corruption or slowing economic growth,” Curtis said.

“Essentially, Indians have concluded that it was time for something new and I think, so keen they were they for having something new, that they were willing to overlook, including some Muslims, they were willing to overlook some of Modi’s baggage,” Kugelman said.

India’s relationship with the United States, and its other regional rival, China, will also be coming under the microscope with the BJP’s victory.

Ties with Washington have cooled in recent years and for the moment, the onus will be on the US to reach out to Modi, particularly since his U.S. visa was revoked as a result of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

“As long as the US makes clear that it wants to engage with Modi and willing to move forward and not dwell on the past, I think we’ll see the BJP reciprocate and there will be opportunities to move forward,” Curtis said.
Kugelman said President Barack Obama’s administration will have to launch a “charm offensive” to kick-start bilateral relations; for example, sending a senior-level government delegation to India in coming months, and replacing the recently resigned U.S. ambassador.

President Obama called Modi on May 16 to congratulate him and invite him to visit the United States

“The U.S.-Indian relationship will never be a perfect relationship, I think it has been oversold in many ways over the years, but Modi is a good person and offers a fresh start for U.S.-Indian relations,” he said.

The heads of Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Mauritius and the speaker of Bangladesh’s parliament also attended the ceremony. Indian commentators called it a “South Asia moment.”

In living up to his pledge of overhauling the government, Modi will head a leaner administration with 44 ministers, in contrast to the 77 ministers in the outgoing government.

Anjana Pasricha contributed to this report from New Delhi.
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