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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi opens stone-built Hindu temple in UAE ahead of India’s elections

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  Kathmandu      February 15 2024

ABU MUREIKHA, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Middle East’s first traditional stone-built Hindu temple on Wednesday, internationalizing both his reelection campaign and his effort to push secular India into a Hindu state.

The trip to the BAPS Hindu Mandir just north of the city of Abu Dhabi capped Modi’s whistlestop tour of the United Arab Emirates during which the Indian leader embraced the UAE’s president, describing him as a brother and also spoke before a global leaders at a Dubai summit.

Modi is widely expected to win a third term as prime minister in the upcoming elections in India, the world’s largest democracy. But Modi’s policies and his governing Bharatiya Janata Party have raised concerns over India’s future, particularly for members of its Muslim minority as they have come under attack in recent years by Hindu nationalist groups.

That has made warming Indian relations with the Muslim-led Gulf Arab states crucial not only for India’s energy security and for millions of its expatriate workers in the region, but also its international standing.

“Every part of the time that God has given me and the body that God has given me are all for Mother India,” Modi told the crowd gathered at the temple, drawing rapturous cheers in what at times resembled a campaign stop.

Even Hindu priest Brahmaviharidas Swami, who helped build the temple, made a point to repeatedly praise Modi’s work, calling him “the most beloved prime minister perhaps that India has ever had.”

The temple in Abu Mureikha was built by the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha or BAPS, a worldwide religious and civic organization within the Swaminarayan sect. Modi has close ties to the organization.

Modi walked past the temple’s seven spires, a nod to the autocratic UAE’s seven sheikhdoms. He looked inside the temple, where earlier Wednesday a priest had consecrated the statues of deities, each worshipped by different Hindu denominations across India.

Modi waved to thousands gathered for the event, described as a Festival of Harmony. Children greeted Modi, others cheered as he toured the temple with priests.

“Today, the United Arab Emirates has written a golden chapter in human history,” Modi told the crowd. “A beautiful and divine temple is being inaugurated here. Many years of hard work have been involved behind this moment.”

Back in India, Modi in January opened a Hindu temple built on the ruins of a historic mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya.

That temple is dedicated to Hinduism’s Lord Ram and had been wanted by Hindus who describe it as restoring a religion suppressed by centuries of Mughal and British colonial rule. But the 1992 demolition of the mosque at the site trigged riots across India that killed 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Earlier Wednesday, Modi spoke before the World Governments Summit in Dubai, hosted by the city-state’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Much of the speech could be seen as a stump speech on the global stage, describing his years in power as pushing for “minimum government, maximum governance.”

“Over the years, the trust of the people of the country on the government of India has become stronger,” Modi said. “People have full faith in both the intentions and commitments of our government.”

“It is as a friend to the world that India is moving forward,” he said.

Modi’s personal touch on the trip, including embracing Emirati President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, seems aimed at further cementing ties with the UAE, an oil-rich country that supplies India’s energy needs while also serving as a home for some 3.5 million of his countrymen abroad. Modi at one point urged people to give Sheikh Mohammed a standing ovation at the event.

The relationship also underscores the Emirates’ realpolitik foreign policy. Modi received the Emirates’ top civilian honor in 2019 even as he stripped statehood from the disputed Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.