NEW DELHI — Under the shadow of majestic sandstone columns and in front of more than 8,000 guests, Narendra Modi was sworn in Thursday for a second term as prime minister of the world’s largest democracy.
Modi won a landslide victory in last week’s national elections by appealing to voters’ sense of nationalist pride and by casting himself as the only leader who could assure India’s security and future aspirations.
Now the hard part begins: delivering on his promises and meeting the heady expectations for his second term.
The extent of Modi’s mandate from voters defied predictions and represented a triumph for his Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and the ideology it espouses, which views India as a fundamentally Hindu nation rather than a secular republic.
After the election, Modi called for a “strong and inclusive India” and said that his government would work to earn the trust of all Indians, including religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians.
The government has been tight-lipped about its early priorities, but ministries are reportedly preparing announcements for the first 100 days of the new term to demonstrate speedy action.
While much of the election campaign focused on questions of national security, voters are also looking to Modi to accelerate economic growth and deepen progress on development issues.
Here’s a look at what to expect in some key policy areas:
More so than other recent Indian prime ministers, Modi made his engagement with foreign policy part of his pitch to voters, presenting his frequent trips abroad and relationships with world leaders as a sign of India’s rising global standing.
Experts say they expect more continuity than disruption in foreign policy. In Modi’s first term, India’s deepened its security partnership with the United States and the two countries concluded a significant defense cooperation agreement.
Even as the United States and India work together to manage the challenge of a rising China, India is also looking to maintain calm in its relations with its eastern neighbor. An informal summit is reportedly already in the works between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
One place where progress is unlikely in the near term is in India’s fraught relationship with Pakistan, its neighbor and rival. Some experts had expected Modi to mount a new push to de-escalate tensions if he won reelection, but that was before the two countries engaged in their worst military confrontation in decades following a major suicide bombing in the disputed region of Kashmir in February.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was not invited to Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on Thursday. Not only is the attack in Kashmir “very fresh in people’s minds,” but Modi’s strong response to the bombing helped him win reelection, said Arvind Gupta, the former deputy national security adviser. An offer to resume talks from the Indian side — or even responding to such an offer by Pakistan — would be “very difficult.”
The success of Modi’s second term hinges on the future course of the Indian economy. Joblessness rose to a 45-year high last year, and there are signs Indian consumers are buying less, which could drag down economic growth just as Modi wants it to surge.
While India is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, it is not expanding rapidly enough to catch up with China, or to generate sufficient jobs for its more than 1.3 billion people, roughly two-thirds of whom are below the age of 35.
“Our growth rate is below potential, everybody recognizes that,” said Surjit Bhalla, an economist who served on an economic advisory panel to the prime minister. Bhalla said the new government could implement changes to agricultural policy, reform labor laws and cut corporate taxes to spur the economy.
Of course, the structural reforms favored by many economists — making it easier to fire and hire workers, streamlining the buying and selling of land, selling off troubled state-owned businesses — are the very ones that are politically sensitive. Much will depend on the Modi government’s appetite for fundamental change.
In its election manifesto, the BJP said it planned to increase economic output from manufacturing, boost India’s exports and reduce bureaucratic obstacles for businesses, but kept mum on more contentious reforms to India’s economy.
Jammu & Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, has spent nearly a year under the direct rule of a representative of the central government, rather than its own elected representatives. The interim administration has presided over hardline policies aimed at crushing a 30-year insurgency against Indian rule.
If Modi follows through on his campaign promises, there could be more instability ahead. During the election, the BJP called for the elimination of two legal protections for Kashmir that are enshrined in the Indian constitution. An attempt to change them would set off a firestorm in Kashmir.
But the BJP campaigned on taking a tough approach to the state and its problems. Showing “any degree of compromise or softness on Kashmir” could cost the party votes in future elections, said Khalid Shah, an expert on Kashmir at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in New Delhi.
How the government plans to implement elements of Hindutva — the word literally means “Hindu-ness” but refers to a belief in Hindu primacy in India — is an open question.
The BJP has vowed to push for the construction of a temple to the Hindu god Ram at a disputed site in the town of Ayodhya, subject to an ongoing judicial process. In its first term, the Modi government did little to advance that goal, but pressure on the issue is likely to mount from Hindu hard-liners.
Modi’s top lieutenant also made the controversial suggestion during the campaign that migrants who enter the country illegally will be treated differently according to their religion. BJP president Amit Shah, who has since joined the cabinet, said the government would seek to eject such migrants, most of whom are Muslim, from the country. But migrants who are Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs or Jains need not worry, he said. (Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism all have roots in India, and some Hindu nationalists view them as close to Hinduism.)
The environment was not a prominent issue in the campaign, but it did receive a modicum of attention from the major parties. For the first time, the BJP manifesto contained a promise to tackle India’s air pollution crisis. It pledged to turn a national clean air initiative into a formal venture with its own budget and ambitious targets.
“Because of growing awareness, political parties were not able to completely ignore this issue,” said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director of the Center for Science and Environment in Delhi. Now the hope is the government will take “big decisions and implement them at a scale that will make a difference.” The government has also promised once again to clean up the Ganges River, which Hindus consider sacred.