India's Modi stunned as rival Gandhi crosses parliament to hug him

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi surprised Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday when he interrupted a no-confidence debate by walking across the parliament floor to give his rival a hug.

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Modi easily survived the no-confidence vote thanks to his parliamentary majority but not before a 12-hour debate in which his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) battled with Gandhi’s Indian National Congress, in a warm-up for elections due by May.

The Hindu nationalist BJP calls Gandhi, the fourth-generation scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, a “failed dynast” out of touch with ordinary people whose only political credential is the accident of his birth.

After a speech accusing Modi of promoting crony capitalism, Gandhi addressed such criticism:

“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,” he said before striding across the floor to put his arms awkwardly around the seated prime minister.

Startled by Gandhi’s gesture, Modi froze in his seat but later called Gandhi back to his seat and shook hands, smiling.

Modi, whose BJP is setting up next year’s vote as a presidential-style contest between the experienced prime minister and an untested challenger, is himself known for his bear hugs, embracing leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

After a poor start in politics, losing a string of elections to Modi’s party, Gandhi 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.

Congress Party leader Shashi Tharoor praised Gandhi’s “astonishing performance” in parliament.

“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,” he tweeted.

During the debate, Modi said since taking office in May 2014 his government had made great strides against corruption.

“We started a war against black money and this war is not going to stop,” he told parliament.

Authorities have ordered nearly 250,000 shell companies to be shut down and another 200,000-250,000 are on their radar, Modi said, blaming the previous Congress government of shielding corrupt people.

Earlier, Gandhi accused the government of withholding information on a deal with France to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets in 2016.

Aditional reporting by Anuja Jaiman, Sudarshan Varadhan, Krishna Das; editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Robin Pomeroy