NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi created a flutter in parliament on Friday, giving Prime Minister Narendra Modi a surprise hug during a heated debate and said he had nothing but love for his bitter political foe.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has repeatedly targeted Gandhi, the fourth generation scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, as a “failed dynast” out of touch with ordinary people and ill-suited for public life.
But Gandhi, who is girding up for national elections next year, said his politics were above hate and that he bore no personal rancor towards Modi who has also targeted the young leader in the past.
Soon after closing a speech tearing into Modi’s four years in office, Gandhi strode across the floor and put his arms awkwardly around the seated prime minister in a rare gesture that caught Modi unawares.
“You have anger against me, you can call me names, you can abuse me, but I don’t have a speck of hatred against you. I will take out this hatred out of you and turn it into love,” Gandhi said as lawmakers thumped their desks and others looked on.
He was speaking on a no-confidence motion against Modi that the government is certain to defeat because of its majority in parliament, but which the opposition hopes will focus attention on the government’s failures in office.
Critics accuse the BJP of divisive politics and of trying to undermine India’s pluralistic foundations enshrined in the constitution. Gandhi’s mother, the Italian-born Sonia, has also been attacked for her foreign origins.
Modi, startled by Gandhi’s gesture, froze in his seat in an image that was repeatedly played on television screens across the country and went viral on social media. Modi later called back Gandhi to his seat and shook hands, smiling.
Modi himself is known for his bear hugs, embracing world leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The ruling BJP is setting up next year’s vote as a presidential-style contest between the experienced Modi with long years of service in government against Gandhi, portrayed as a political novice handed the reins of his Congress party because of the accident of birth.
But Gandhi, after a poor start in politics losing a string of elections to Modi’s party, is drawing crowds as he seeks to exploit Modi’s failure to deliver tens of thousands of jobs he promised India’s youth and a broader decline in law and order.
“What an astonishing performance by @RahulGandhi,” said Congress leader Shashi Tharoor in a Twitter post. “It was a game-changing speech, tearing apart the Govt’s claims & ending with that unscripted hug that has literally taken the BJP’s breath away.”