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After landslide win, India's next prime minister begins victory lap, looks to challenges ahead

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NEW DELHI - Thousands of people welcomed India's next prime minister in the capital on Saturday after he led his party to a resounding election victory, with Narendra Modi flashing a victory sign to his cheering supporters and telling them that the win "created a new confidence among people."

Results announced Friday from the weeks-long polls showed that Modi and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party had won the most decisive election victory India has seen in three decades, sweeping the long-dominant Congress party from power.

On Saturday, Modi was greeted by roaring crowds outside the BJP's headquarters in the heart of New Delhi, where he met with the party's leadership to discuss forming a new government.

The headquarters were festooned with garlands made of marigold flowers and multicolored balloons. Supporters blew conch shells, which traditionally mark the start of most Hindu rituals. As Modi walked toward the office, he was showered with rose petals.

In a country where elections usually result in cacophony rather than a single roar, Modi pulled off a mandate of staggering proportions, leaving him unfettered to pursue the agenda of economic revival and development that propelled him to victory.

What remains to be seen is how quickly Modi, who has ruled the western state of Gujarat since 2001, can match the enormous expectations he has created in an electorate that is hungry for change.

"One might envy Narendra Modi his awesome electoral victory yesterday. But the challenges he faces as India's 17th prime minister are scarcely enviable," Mohan Guruswamy, an economist long associated with the BJP, wrote in The Citizen, an online journal.

For most of the past two years, Modi, 63, has worked relentlessly to market himself as the one leader capable of waking this nation of 1.2 billion from its economic slumber, while trying to shake off allegations that he looked the other way amid communal riots in his home state in 2002 that killed 1,000 people, most of them Muslims.

On Saturday, as thousands of people cheered and danced in the streets to welcome him to the capital, it was clear that Modi had managed to win the confidence of a large number of Indians.

Modi and the BJP wiped out a Congress party that had dominated Indian politics for all but a decade since the country gained freedom from British rule in 1947.

The final tally showed that the BJP had won 282 seats and Congress just 44 in the 543-strong Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament — meaning Modi will be able to form a government without the support of smaller parties.

The last time any single party won a majority in India was in 1984, when the Congress party swept more than 400 seats following the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

But 30 years later, India is in the midst of rapid socio-economic change. About 13 million young people are entering the job market each year, but not enough jobs are being created in an economy that has slowed down to below 5 per cent in the last two years. Prices of food have spiraled, as has unemployment.

For voters, the priorities in this election were no longer bound by old traditional religious and caste allegiances. Instead, jobs and development were their main priority, and after having promised them that, Modi's real challenge lies ahead.

The BJP has promised to change tough labour laws that make foreign manufacturers reluctant to set up factories in India. Manufacturing makes up only 15 per cent of India's economy, compared to 31 per cent in China. Attracting manufacturing investment is key to creating jobs, and foreign investors have been pouring billions of dollars into Indian stocks and bonds in anticipation of a Modi victory.

Modi himself looked forward, confidently promising to start work on his agenda quickly and thanking voters for giving him a clear mandate.

A new government will take office sometime after the BJP's newly elected lawmakers formally appoint Modi as prime minister on Tuesday, but no date has been set, party President Rajnath Singh told reporters.

Outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on Saturday and gave him his resignation.

U.S. President Barack Obama called Singh Saturday to express his gratitude for the outgoing prime minister's "critical role in transforming and deepening the U.S.-India strategic partnership and our co-operation on global challenges, according to a statement released by the White House. Obama also told Singh that he "looked forward to further expanding the strong relationship between the United States and India" with Modi.

Continuing his victory lap, Modi headed later Saturday to Varanasi, the town on the banks of the Ganges river that is revered by millions of devout Hindus. An elaborately decorated platform was built for him to offer prayers on the banks of the river. Saffron flags fluttered above the flower-bedecked platform, and thousands of supporters and onlookers milled around to watch as Hindu priests chanted sacred verses and burned incense.

But amid the euphoria of the win, Modi's own party struck a restrained note.

"Our promises will be fulfilled within the five-year mandate that we have been given," close Modi aide and BJP General Secretary Amit Shah told New Delhi Television channel, brushing aside questions on what the party's agenda in the first 100 days in office would be.

Gurcharan Das, the former head of Procter & Gamble in India, said Modi "should go for the low-hanging fruits first."

"There are so many projects that are stuck at various stages," Das said. "If he gets a group of talented people, gives the bureaucracy a sense of purpose and clarity of what he wants, that will be the quickest way to start executing projects."

Modi's critics have questioned whether his divisive past makes him a leader under whom India's many religious minorities — especially its 138 million Muslims — could feel safe.

Sreeram Chaulia, a political analyst and dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs, said that Modi "may have started his career on the extreme right, but he's coming more toward the centre now. And he will have to. The average voter is not interested in religious tensions."

Modi's foreign policy is likely to focus heavily on trade and investment, which he has said the current government ignored. But overall, it's unlikely to be dramatically different from his predecessors, including relationships with key nations such as the United States and China.

"There may be a change of emphasis, but in terms of foreign policy, I don't foresee any drastic or dramatic departure from the past," said Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian ambassador to the United States.

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