PM Narendra Modi has denounced the government of Tamil Nadu for “insulting” space scientists with release of controversial advert Narendra Modi (L) and M.K. Stalin gesture during an event in Tamil Nadu on May 26, 2022. © Arun SANKAR / AFP

A newspaper advert touting the Indian space agency’s new launch facility in southern Tamil Nadu state has triggered a massive political row between the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the state government. The ad prominently featured a Chinese flag on an Indian rocket.

The poster, which was commissioned by a minister in the state, Anitha Radhakrishnan, shows Indian Prime Minister Narendra and Tamil Nadu chief MK Stalin side-by-side, with the rocket in the background bearing the flag of the People’s Republic of China. The Modi-led BJP, which traditionally struggles in the state and is often at odds with the Stalin-led Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party, was quick to lash out.

“[The DMK party] has crossed all limits,” Modi said at an election rally on Thursday. “To take credit for the ISRO launchpad in Tamil Nadu, they affixed a Chinese flag.” By using the foreign flag, the South Indian party had insulted Indian scientists, the space sector, and taxpayers’ contributions, Modi claimed. Earlier, in a post on X, Modi had described the incident as “hilarious” and demanded an apology.

Across India, political campaigning is underway ahead of national elections later this year. On Wednesday, Modi laid the foundation stone for the Kulasekarapattinam spaceport, ISRO’s second satellite launch facility. This week he also named the four astronauts who will travel to space aboard the country’s first manned space mission, Gaganyaan. The developments come within a week of New Delhi easing restrictions on foreign direct investment in its space sector.

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Minister Radhakrishnan on Thursday claimed the Chinese flag was a “mistake” by the designer. “A small mistake happened in the advertisement,” he was quoted as saying by NDTV. “We have no other intention.” Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, a DMK member of parliament, argued that India has not declared China as an “enemy country.” She also pointed out that Modi had taken China’s premier Xi Jinping on a tour of Tamil Nadu’s Mahabalipuram during their 2019 meeting.

Ties between New Delhi and Beijing remain tense after their armies clashed in Galwan Valley, Ladakh, along the countries’ disputed Himalayan border, resulting in casualties on both sides.

Last year, Modi and Xi met on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg where they agreed on de-escalation in Ladakh. The latest round of military talks to resolve friction at the border took place in February – without a breakthrough outcome.

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