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- Our Town
Modi to take oath as Indian PM in front of Sharif
By Nirmala George, The Associated Press
NEW DELHI - Pakistan's prime minister arrived in the capital of his country's archrival Monday to attend the inauguration of his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, a historic moment that could signal a thaw in relations between the often hostile neighbours.
Modi's inauguration is the first to which India invited heads of state from across South Asia. The leaders of Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Maldives, Nepal and Afghanistan were expected to attend, and Bangladesh was to be represented by the speaker of its parliament.
India's President Pranab Mukherjee will administer the oath of office and secrecy to Modi and his Cabinet ministers at the presidential palace.
Analysts said the presence of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif signals an easing of tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
Pakistan and India have a history of uneasy relations and have fought three wars since their independence from Britain in 1947. Modi and Sharif are scheduled to hold formal talks on Tuesday.
Sharif called his visit "a chance to reach out to each other" and "a great opportunity," in an interview with NDTV news channel.
"Both governments have a strong mandate. This could help in turning a new page in our relations," he added.
Relations between Pakistan and India froze after an attack on Mumbai, India's fianancial hub, in 2008 in which Pakistani militants killed 166 people.
Modi is likely to insist Tuesday that Pakistan expedite investigations into the Mumbai attack and put its perpetrators on trial. New Delhi would also demand that Islamabad take action against Islamic militant groups operating out of Pakistani territory to prevent further terror attacks on India. Other major problems relate to the future of Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan territory over which they have fought two of their three wars.
Neelam Deo, director, Gateway House, a foreign policy think-tank in Mumbai, said Sharif's presence at the inaugural and the bilateral talks that would follow "provides an opportunity to commence relations on an encouraging note."
"It also provides an occasion for prime minister Modi to lay down India's concerns, particularly on the topic of border security and terrorism," said Deo, a former Indian diplomat.
Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party won a resounding victory in the general election that ended this month. Modi has promised to revitalize the economy and restore India as a leading global power.
The past few years have seen economic growth plummeting coupled with runaway inflation and a decline in exports. The former Congress party-run government had become paralyzed by corruption scandals, internal feuding and an inability to deal with the stumbling economy and deep-rooted problems with poverty, infrastructure and education.
In an early indication that he plans to streamline government functioning, Modi's office said in a statement that several ministries, especially those dealing with infrastructure, were being combined to make them more efficient and to reduce bureaucratic red tape.
Modi won the election with a strong mandate that analysts say will give him a free hand in choosing his priorities without being constrained by coalition partners. The BJP won 282 seats in the 543-member lower house of Parliament, well ahead of the 272 halfway mark that it would require for conducting business.
During his campaign, Modi promised that if he was voted to office his goals would be good governance, job creation and rooting out corruption, a message that struck a chord with voters who chose BJP.
Huge billboards with Modi's picture have been erected outside the BJP's office in New Delhi, while enthusiastic supporters, waving the party's saffron-and-green flag, shouted slogans hailing the new prime minister.
"It's an occasion for celebration for the people of the entire country who have such high expectations from the new leader," said Anupam Kher, Bollywood actor and longtime supporter of the BJP.
Security has been tightened ahead of the ceremony with more than 7,000 police deployed near the sprawling presidential palace, said Mukesh Meena, a police commissioner in New Delhi.
Sharpshooters have been positioned on the roofs of nearby government office buildings and security guards in plainclothes posted at key places, police said. Roads leading to the palace in the heart of the city would be closed to traffic five hours before the ceremony as a security measure, Meena said.