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Modi's finance chief pick in focus as cabinet sworn in

Incoming ministers include confidant Amit Shah and ex-foreign secretary Jaishankar

NEW DELHI -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the oath of office Thursday along with his ministers for another five-year term, after his Bharatiya Janata Party swept a general election lasting over a month.

Though many of Modi's ministers from his first term will stay on, much about the new cabinet remained uncertain Thursday evening, including who will replace outgoing finance chief Arun Jaitley.

Local media reported on speculation that the post may go to Amit Shah, the BJP chief and key architect of the party's victory in the general election.

Modi, 68, the son of a tea seller, became only the third Indian prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi to win a second term with a clear majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

In total, 58 ministers including Modi took the oath at the presidential mansion, 25 of them holding cabinet rank.

"This team is a blend of youthful energy and administrative experience," Modi wrote in a Twitter post.

"Together, we will work for India’s progress."

Among the cabinet members retained by Modi are Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari, Nirmala Sitharaman, Smriti Irani, Piyush Goyal and Ram Vilas Paswan. They served as ministers for home affairs, road transport, defense, textiles, railways and consumer affairs, respectively, in his first term, but their portfolios in Modi's new government were not disclosed.

Also included in the cabinet along was former foreign secretary S. Jaishankar. While Shah was widely expected to be rewarded with a cabinet seat, the choice of Jaishankar came as a surprise.

Jaishankar, a career diplomat, also served as ambassador to the U.S. and China, and is credited with advancing India's relations with both countries. After his retirement as India's foreign secretary last year, he joined conglomerate Tata Sons as president for global corporate affairs. His induction into Modi's cabinet is expected to help the government shape foreign policy in the second term.

Several thousand guests attended the swearing-in ceremony in the forecourt of the colonial-era Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Indian president's official residence. The attendees included leaders from neighboring nations such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Also present were Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus of Tata Sons; Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani; and Bollywood celebrities such as filmmaker Karan Johar and actress Kangana Ranaut.

Modi suffered a setback Wednesday when Jaitley, the finance minister during the first term and a trusted aide, opted out of any position in the new government, citing health reasons. Jaitley, 66, a diabetic, has faced serious health issues for more than a year and also underwent a kidney transplant in May 2018.

"I am writing to you to formally request you that I should be allowed a reasonable time for myself, my treatment and my health and, therefore, not be a part of any responsibility, for the present, in the new government," he wrote in a letter to Modi.

Jaitley's health did not permit him to present the interim budget in February, a task that was fulfilled by cabinet colleague Goyal. A budget in an election year is an interim one, to let the outgoing government continue with obligatory spending until a new administration assumes charge. A full budget will be presented after Modi forms the new government.

Filling Jaitley's shoes and solving challenges facing India's economy, which is growing at roughly 7%, will be difficult tasks. His successor will be pressed by crises in the agrarian and banking sectors, along with the need to revive private investment and create jobs in a country of 1.3 billion where about 12 million young people enter the workforce yearly.

Modi and the BJP made nationalism and national security the key planks of their election campaign after India sent warplanes in February to target militant bases following a suicide attack in the Indian-controlled part of the disputed Kashmir region that killed 40 paramilitary police. Analysts say this helped the prime minister and his party win a mandate.

His Hindu nationalist BJP scored a stunning victory in a bitterly fought general election from April 11 to May 19, securing 303 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha -- up from 282 in the 2014 polls. A party or coalition needs 272 seats to form a majority, and the BJP and its partners in the ruling National Democratic Alliance now occupy over 350.

The main opposition Indian National Congress headed by Rahul Gandhi suffered a crushing defeat, winning just 52 seats, up from 44 in the previous nationwide poll. Gandhi along with his mother and senior Congress leader Sonia and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were present at Modi's swearing-in ceremony.

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