Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, has been accused of “interfering” in the next US presidential election after he gave a speech in Texas that critics say tacitly endorsed Donald Trump for re-election in 2020.
Mr Modi made the comments as he appeared onstage alongside the US president during a rally in Houston on Sunday, which was attended by more than 50,000 members of the Indian diaspora.
It was only the first morning of events in a week-long visit by the Indian prime minister that will culminate in an address to the UN general assembly on Friday.
Mr Trump described the “Howdy, Modi!” rally as a “profoundly historic event”, and he and Mr Modi renewed their warm personal relationship onstage by exchanging praise in speeches in English.
But it was a reference to a key phrase in Hindi that has provoked criticism for Mr Modi in India.
Mr Modi said he admired his counterpart’s “sense of leadership, passion for America, concern for every American and strong resolve to make America great again”.
“He has already made the American economy strong again,” Mr Modi said. “He has achieved much for the US and the world. Friends, we in India have connected well with President Trump.”
With a smile, he added: “In the words of candidate Trump: Abki baar Trump sarkar (This time, [a] Trump government).”
The line was a reference to Mr Modi’s own catchy slogan Abki baar Modi sarkar, which helped propel him to power in 2014 and has been described as “one of the most popular election catchphrases ever in the history of Indian elections”.
It also harked back to a TV advert released by the Trump campaign in 2016 that appealed to the Indian American community for their votes, when Mr Trump himself first adopted Mr Modi’s catchphrase.
Nonetheless, Mr Modi’s emphasis on the expression on Sunday – at a time when Mr Trump is gearing up for another vote – led a spokesperson for the opposition Congress party in India to accuse Mr Modi of “taking a partisan position in [the] domestic electoral politics” of another country.
The prime minister “would have been better avoiding” repeating the Trump campaign slogan, Anand Sharma told reporters in Delhi. “It should not be seen that India is taking positions or sides,” he said.
Mr Modi, he said, had “violated the time-honoured principle of Indian foreign policy of not interfering in the domestic elections of another country”.
And in an earlier tweet directed at Mr Modi, he said: “Reminding you that you are in the USA as our prime minister and not a star campaigner in US elections.”
At the end of their onstage comments, Mr Trump and Mr Modi embraced and walked off the podium hand-in-hand to a standing ovation.
And the organisers of the event, the Texas India Forum, were delighted Mr Trump had agreed to attend. “His presence is an indication of his support and endorsement of the strengthening of India’s relations with America,” a spokeswoman told Reuters. “This event is about strengthening those ties.”
It was not all warm words and bear hugs, however. While there was vociferous support for the visiting prime minister inside the stadium, protesters outside condemned the “nightmare” currently being imposed on Kashmir by the Indian government.
The demonstration was organised jointly by the groups Hindus for Human Rights, the Houston arm of Black Lives Matter and the Indian American Muslim Council.
Protesters criticised the Indian government over its unilateral decision, announced on 5 August, to withdraw Kashmir’s semi-autonomous special status, as well as the weeks-long communications and movement lockdown that has followed.
Sunita Viswanath, an activist of Hindus for Human Rights, told The Indian Express: “We are horrified that our religion … is being hijacked by extremists and nationalists who are lynching Muslims, trampling democracy and law and order and arresting, if not murdering, those who are speaking out.”
The Indian government has repeatedly said that its move in Kashmir, which has received international criticism, is an “internal matter” and will not be discussed this week during events around the UN general assembly.
Yet Mr Modi himself brought it up in front of Sunday’s receptive audience. He told the crowd that the withdrawal of Article 370 – the constitutional clause that granted Kashmiris special rights and freedoms – was about improving the lives of those living in the Muslim-majority region.
In a dig at neighbouring Pakistan – which also claims sovereignty over Kashmir – Mr Modi said that those who had “problems” with India’s decision could not manage their own country and were “supporters of terrorism”.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies