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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi opens stone-built Hindu Temple in UAE ahead of coming elections

Modi’s policies 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

Narendra Modi
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs a Hindu water ritual, as he attends the inauguration of the BAPS Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 14, 2024.AMR ALFIKY (REUTERS)

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.

Modi visited the temple in Abu Mureikha, 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.

The prime minister waved at a crowd of thousands gathered of the event, described as a Festival of Harmony, some spilling out into overflow seating outside. Children greeted Modi, others cheered his movements through the temple with priests.

The temple effort extends back home for Modi as well. In January, he 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.

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.

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