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In a ceremony in Ayodhya, a past flash point for sectarian violence, India’s prime minister offers his Hindu nationalist base a clear symbol of ascendancy.

NEW DELHI — In a moment of triumph that India’s Hindu nationalists had worked toward for years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday set the ceremonial cornerstone for a new Hindu temple at the site of a destroyed mosque in Ayodhya.

Hindus and Muslims have clashed over the Ayodhya site for decades, setting off waves of sectarian violence that has killed thousands. As Mr. Modi sat cross-legged and chanted mantras in front of a Hindu priest on Wednesday, part of the elaborate groundbreaking ceremony for the temple, it was the fulfillment of a promise to his Hindu political base and an unmistakable milestone in his efforts to shift India’s secular foundations toward a more overtly Hindu identity.

Millions of Indians watched the ceremony on television or on social media. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, the gathering in Ayodhya itself was more muted than originally planned, with the crowds kept away. Hindu priests chose Wednesday, and specifically at 12:44 p.m., as the most auspicious time to begin building the new temple.

With the television cameras rolling, Mr. Modi took center stage. He performed Hindu rituals, such as offering holy water and putting a red mark on his forehead, alongside some of India’s most avowed Hindu nationalists. They included Yogi Adityanath, the firebrand Hindu monk turned chief minister of Uttar Pradesh State, and Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of the R.S.S., a Hindu supremacist group, whose members helped tear down the mosque that used to stand in Ayodhya.

Mr. Modi’s triumphal moment collides with a tough reality. India has been walloped by the coronavirus, racking up more infections than any other nation besides the United States and Brazil. The virus is cutting through India’s political class, including some people close to Mr. Modi.

In the past few days, Dharmendra Pradhan, the oil minister, and Amit Shah, the home minister who is widely considered India’s second-most-powerful person after Mr. Modi, came down with the coronavirus and have been hospitalized. Several other top politicians have fallen sick.

And the economy has fallen into a deep well. Economists have predicted that more than 100 million Indians lost their jobs or are in serious danger of losing them. As factories shut down and people retreated to their homes under coronavirus lockdown rules, some of which still stand, tens of millions of laborers poured out of the cities, making harrowing journeys back into the countryside, where they hoped to rely on their rural families to survive.

In that environment, for many Indian Hindus, Mr. Modi’s Ayodhya ceremony was a captivating distraction. It symbolized Mr. Modi’s “total domination over India,” said Arati Jerath, a political commentator.

The intent, Ms. Jerath said, is for Mr. Modi to show that he and his party are “building a Hindu nation and that India is a Hindu-majority country, not the Nehruvian secular India that we have known for the last 70 years.”

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