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After Landslide Victory, Modi Becomes India's Prime Minister


Let's turn now to India where a new prime minister is taking office today. Narendra Modi's BJP party won a landslide victory last week. More than 3,000 people are attending an outdoor ceremony today for his swearing in, but one guest in particular is getting a lot of the attention. He is Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, who said he is coming to India carrying a message of peace. NPR's Julie McCarthy is on the line with us from New Delhi. Good morning, Julie.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So this is being seen as one of the most historic days in Indian politics in a very long time. I mean, set the scene for us here.

MCCARTHY: Well, there is a flush of excitement at this oath taking with a mammoth security detail 5 tiers thick. The Times Of India, I think summed up the moment with this headline that says, "Not just a new regime, it's a new era."

The 63-year-old Narendra Modi, who led the BJP, as you pointed out to a walk away victory, can be expected to upset the political status quo. You know, that's an enticing prospect for some, it's an unsettling thing for others. He's a Hindu nationalist who revels as the Delhi outsider and he's likely to rattle the cage of the political establishment. He's already surprised everyone with this splashy swearing in ceremony that he's managed to turn into a global event by inviting India's neighbors - it's unprecedented.

GREENE: Well, part of the status quo, of course, is tensions between India and Pakistan over the years. I mean, this is India's archrival. Pakistan hesitated at first to attend the ceremony. I mean, take us through the hurdles that might have stood in the way of Pakistan's prime minister being here.

MCCARTHY: Well, it's a delicate road to New Delhi for Nawaz Sharif. David, Narendra Modi is one of the most controversial political figures in contemporary India, owing to his Hindu nationalist ideology that makes Muslims nervous. So Sharif is walking into the lion's den and he seems to relish the idea, but his army generals were less keen. And the Army remains the most important player in Pakistan, although its powers aren't what they used to be from the days when army chief Pervez Musharraf overthrew Sharif in 1999.

So you can imagine that Sharif treads carefully and he's not likely to openly confront the Army, but he's been trying to chip away at its authority. One example is the legal case against Musharraf. Sharif is letting the judiciary try the man who deposed him and the Army would prefer that Musharraf be allowed to leave the country.

But Sharif has persuaded the Army that this opportunity to come to India is not a threat and also, Sharif would've looked weak if he hadn't come, appearing controlled by the Army.

GREENE: So it's one thing to be part of all the pomp and circumstance, it's another to actually get things done. I mean, these two leaders are going to have a one-on-one meeting tomorrow. Is there a chance for some kind of thaw in relations?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think it's more of a reset in relations, a get to know you, take the measure of each other. But David, these two men embody the conflict that has dragged on here for decades. Modi, this Hindu nationalist, Sharif, on the other hand, a conservative Muslim who has ties to the most radical Jihadi elements inside Pakistan. And for these two men to meet represents hope, you know, that there can be a thaw in relations in this dangerous nuclear armed neighborhood.

Remember too that the wheels have come off of Pakistan's economy and a trade deal with India would help Sharif a lot. But India first wants to see justice done for those responsible for the rampage by Pakistani terrorists in Mumbai in 2008. There is still a lot of distrust over that and there are plenty of analysts who say if Modi expects Sharif to roll up the terror infrastructure in Pakistan, he may be in for disappointment. His own political survival is at stake.

GREENE: All right, all eyes today on New Delhi where Narendra Modi is being sworn in as India's prime minister.

NPR's Julie McCarthy on the line with us. Julie, thanks a lot.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 26, 2014 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous headline incorrectly said Narendra Modi had been elected prime minister of Pakistan. Modi has been elected prime minister of India.
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.
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