Modi’s words strike the right chord with members of Congress
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a joint meeting of the US Congress, Thursday afternoon, it was a sight to behold. He received a rousing welcome from US lawmakers who packed the House Chamber and Indian-Americans sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the gallery above.
The prime minister’s hour-long speech in English was punctuated with multiple standing ovations and frequent applause by the audience. The Indian diaspora could hardly contain their excitement and chants of ‘Modi Modi’, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ (Long live Mother India), cheers, whistles and claps were heard throughout the address. The fervor was not lost on the lawmakers; the euphoria was so pronounced, it reverberated through the Chamber.
It was indeed an historic event: Modi is the first Indian leader to address the Congress twice; and presiding over the rare meeting was Vice President Kamala Harris who traces her roots to India.
“It is always a great honor to address the United States Congress. It is an exceptional privilege to do so twice”, Modi told the legislators. “For this honor, I extend my deepest gratitude on behalf of the 1.4 billion people of India”.
The Indian leader noted that a lot has changed since he came to Capitol Hill in 2016. “But, a lot has remained the same – like our commitment to deepen the friendship between India and the United States”, he said, to loud cheers. “In the past few years, there have been many advances in AI – Artificial Intelligence. At the same time, there have been even more momentous developments in another AI – America and India”.
His words struck the right chord with members of Congress. India enjoys bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers from both parties view the world’s largest democracy as a strategic ally, an effective counterweight to China and a valuable partner in defense, technology, energy and climate change.
Earlier in the day, President Biden, who together with First Lady Jill Biden hosted Modi at the White House as part of his maiden state visit to the US, underscored the importance of the Indian leader being invited to address a joint session of Congress.
“It’s a testament to the strong and enduring and thoroughly bipartisan support that exists all across the United States for the friendship and partnership between India and the United States that they (US lawmakers) are anxiously waiting to hear you up on Capitol Hill”, Biden told Modi at a joint press conference.
Speaking to the legislators in the House Chamber, the Indian leader said, “I know our relations are of great importance to all of you. Every member of this Congress has a deep interest in it”.
He pointed out that when he first visited the US as prime minister in 2014, India was the tenth largest economy in the world. “Today, India is the fifth largest economy. And India will be the third largest economy soon”, he said. “We are not only growing bigger, but we are also growing faster. When India grows, the whole world grows”.
Seated prominently in the center of the chamber were the five Representatives of Indian descent, all Democrats – Ami Bera and Ro Khanna (California), Raja Krishnamoorthi (Illinois), Pramila Jayapal (Washington) and Shri Thanedar (Michigan). These Indian-origin lawmakers constitute the informal ‘Samosa Caucus’, a name coined by Krishnamoorthi.
“There are millions here who have roots in India. Some of them sit proudly in this chamber”, Modi said. “There is one behind me who has made history”, he added, referring to the vice president.
“I am told that the ‘Samosa Caucus’ is now the flavor of the House. I hope it grows and brings the full diversity of Indian cuisine here”, he added.
A few US lawmakers chose to boycott the prime minister’s address citing human rights abuses, the repression of religious minorities in India, and curbs on press freedom. Among these House Democrats were Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), the only Muslim women ever elected to the US Congress, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York).
Rep. Jamie Raskin who signed a bicameral letter with over 70 of his colleagues protesting human rights violations in India, did not attend the address due to personal commitments. “To correct the record, I am not boycotting Prime Minister Modi’s visit. I am going to my daughter’s wedding”, he tweeted.
Describing India as a “vibrant democracy”, Modi dwelt in length on this sacred value that it shares with America.
“Democracy is the spirit that supports equality and dignity. Democracy is the idea that welcomes debate and discourse. Democracy is the culture that gives wings to thought and expression. India is blessed to have such values from times immemorial. In the evolution of the democratic spirit, India is the mother of democracy”, he underscored.
Noting that the US is the oldest and India the largest democracy, he said, “Our partnership augurs well for the future of democracy. Together, we shall give a better future to the world, and a better world to the future”.
The leader of the most populous country in the world told the audience on Capitol Hill that India has over two thousand five hundred political parties, drawing some gasps.
“We have twenty two official languages and thousands of dialects and yet, we speak in one voice”, he said. “Every hundred miles, our cuisine changes” and all are enjoyed. “We are home to all faiths in the world and we celebrate all of them. In India, diversity is a natural way of life”, he said, eliciting much applause from the audience.
At the White House news conference, he categorically denied that discrimination against minorities exists under his government.
“I’m actually really surprised that people say so. Democracy is in our DNA. Democracy runs in our veins. We live democracy. We have always proved that democracy can deliver. And when I say deliver, this is regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender. There is absolutely no space for any discrimination”, he told reporters.
Throughout his official visit, June 21-24, Modi extolled the Indian-American community and he underlined their contributions in his address on Capitol Hill.
Noting, “The scope of our cooperation is endless. the potential of our synergies is limitless, and the chemistry in our relations is effortless”, he told lawmakers, “In all this, Indian-Americans have played a big role. They are brilliant in every field, not just in Spelling Bee”, he said.
“With their hearts and minds, talent and skills and their love for America and India, they have connected us, they have unlocked doors, they have shown the potential of our partnership”, he added.
Without specifically mentioning China, he lamented that “a consequence of globalization has been the over-concentration of supply chains. We will work together to diversify, decentralize and democratize supply chains”, he pledged. “Technology will determine the security, prosperity and leadership in the 21st century” and in this regard he mentioned the new India-US ‘Initiative for Critical and Emerging Technologies’.
The Indian leader warned, “The dark clouds of coercion and confrontation are casting their shadow in the Indo-Pacific. The stability of the region has become one of the central concerns of our partnership”, he told US legislators.
“We share a vision of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, connected by secure seas, defined by international law, free from domination and anchored in ASEAN centrality. A region where all nations, small and large, are free and fearless in their choices, where progress is not suffocated by an impossible burden of debt, where connectivity is not leveraged for strategic purposes, where all nations are lifted by the high tide of shared prosperity”. The prime minister made it clear, “Our vision does not seek to contain or exclude, but to build a cooperative region of peace and prosperity”.
A day earlier, Senator Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida) said in a statement, “As we extend a warm welcome to Prime Minister Modi, it is crucial that the Biden administration and the US Congress prioritize this incredibly important relationship. Our nations’ economic and security interests overlap on many of the most pressing issues, especially the growing hostility of the Chinese Communist Party in the Himalayas and in the Indian Ocean. We find ourselves at a new juncture in global history in which both India and the United States can further strengthen this vital partnership and build upon the foundation of our shared democratic values and national interests”.
On Capitol Hill, Modi spoke of the Ukraine conflict as one of the “deeply disruptive developments” in recent years which has led to a war on the European continent. “It is causing great pain in the region. Since it involves major powers, the consequences are severe”, he said without mentioning Russia.
His message was clear: “The global order is based on the respect for the principles of the UN Charter, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
He emphasized, “This is not an era of war. But, it is one of dialogue and diplomacy. And, we all must do what we can to stop the bloodshed and human suffering”.
Following his address, several lawmakers flocked to his side for a handshake, selfie or just a brief chat.
Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida said on Twitter, as Republican co-chair of the India Caucus, he is thrilled that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy invited Modi to address the US Congress. “This will be the most important partnership for the US in the 21st century”, he predicted.
Iowa Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks tweeted it was a great honor to welcome the prime minister to Congress and to have University of Iowa graduate Pareen Mhatre in attendance as her guest.
“The US has a special relationship with India and I look forward to continuing to build this important relationship”, she said.