Modi's Address To The U.S. Congress: The Meaning Behind The Hints, The Smiles And The Nudges

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's fifty-minute speech attempted to encompass the entirety of India-U.S. relations. Here is an analysis of all that was said and of what he left unsaid.

Four Indian Prime Ministers have addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress before Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his speech to Congressmen and Congresswomen on June 8.

Prime Minister Modi’s speech though could be said to be one of the most well-received as he received more than 60 rounds of applause during his 50-minute address. He also received standing ovations about a dozen times and a handshake from Speaker Paul Ryan.

Modi’s address is a landmark event not just for the optics provided but for what he underlined as the state of India-U.S. relations.

India's prime minister has been acknowledged as a skillful orator. His skill did not diminish with him having to speak in a language he is not very comfortable with. His address to American lawmakers was a calculated mix of genuine appreciation, humour, concern, tact, good-humoured chiding, positivity and ofcourse hard-selling India.

Modi began with the word democracy. Democracy is sacred to Americans (they are after all the world’s oldest) and it is the differentiating factor against those who are not democratic – think Russians and the Chinese (ahem Commies). He first praised Capitol Hill, called it the “temple of democracy” and then went on to appreciate American action ‘to encourage, empower democracies across the world” (namely South American nations like El Salvador, Chile and East Asian countries like South Korea and Philippines).

The fact that the U.S. is actually blamed for toppling governments (Iran, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Congo, Guatemala and of course Vietnam) makes Modi’s appreciation somewhat contentious. But, the fact is that the American government’s state department has an explicit agenda to ‘further democracy and democratic values’.

He then referenced Abraham Lincoln’s words of ‘all men are created equal’ and linked this to India and its people – drawing the commonality of humanity. Abraham Lincoln has been incidentally, rated America’s greatest president, ever.

Modi then showed some more appreciation, using one of the most common phrases used to describe India-U.S. relations – the world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest democracy. In the past this phrase was simply a fact but with the last decade as a backdrop and the recent defence logistics agreement, this phrase symbolizes the starting point for the bilateral alliance.

Modi spoke of his visit to the Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. The graves at Arlington are of the dead since the American Civil War and of those reentered in other wars since. In visiting the site, Indian Express rightly analyses that this visit is about Modi talking to American people.

‘India applauds the sacrifices of those from the land of the free and the home of the brave’ got Modi his first standing ovation. These words are the last line of the stanza of the American national anthem ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. The American national anthem was a poem written by Francis Scott Key during the battle of Fort McHenry and the subsequent victory over the British navy. Nothing like reminding the audience of the battle that created the ‘great’ United States (of America).

Even as Modi was speaking at Capitol Hill, reportedly a meeting was going on across the road on the ‘human rights violations in India’. His statement ‘that India grows as one, celebrates as one….equality of all citizens are enshrined as fundamental rights’ seemed to be a clairvoyant address to the concern of a rising-Hindu anti-other faith sentiment.

By referencing Swami Vivekanand’s address of Chicago and Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence protest movement being adopted by Martin Luther King, Modi attempted to show the ties between U.S. and India from a historical perspective – that in fact the two countries are partners in this effort to create great democracies.

Mention of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar’s stint at Columbia University too and his subsequent referencing of the U.S. Constitution while drafting the Indian one, was to underline the common values. This was then linked to Obama’s claim of the India-U.S. partnership being the ‘defining moment of the 21st century’.

His use of Atal Bihari’s coaxing words two-decades ago to ‘not hesitate’, was a gentle reprimand of the time and hence opportunity lost in the intervening years (by the American establishment).

This was then tactfully covered by the appreciation for the passing of the land mark ‘Civil nuclear deal’ of 2007. A deal that is historic as much for the bettering of ties between the two-countries after decades of cold shouldering as for the work done by the American President George W. Bush and the then House of Congress.

Modi then brought comic relief to the serious gathering with his acknowledgement of the (lack of) bipartisanship that has held the working of the U.S. legislation hostage for months now. A potshot if there was any at the Congress party back home which has blocked passing of bills in the Rajya Sabha.

The Prime Minister then fast forward to the present to mention that India trades more with the U.S. than any other country – a big statement but not fully correct – as U.S. is India’s top import partner and second-largest defence supplier. Modi was simply underlining the obvious for the lawmakers that India’s buying of American arms obviously benefits American companies which in turn keeps Americans in jobs.

Apple’s Siri and Yoga found a mention - ‘Siri says 30 million Americans bend to yoga every day…and Mr. Speaker we have not yet applied for Intellectual Property Rights for Yoga’.

Modi’s speech was about re-introducing the idea and potential of India through the familiar to the American lawmakers – his speech described India-Americans as ‘your top CEOs, academics, astronauts, doctors and even spelling-bee champions’. The 2016 spelling-bee champion Jairam Hathwar was amongst the audience sitting in the visitor’s gallery.

It was also about telling the Americans about the man Narendra Modi – before he visited U.S. for the first time as India’s Head of Government in 2014, he had traveled extensively in the U.S. – a fact not known by many. What he did become (in-) famous for was his visa being rejected in 2005 while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat on account of the 2002 riots.

When talking about India’s economy, Modi spoke about time-bound targets – achieving them by India’s 75th Independence Day i.e. 2022. By talking out loud about his goals, the prime minister was underlining the ways in which he was attempting to change the functioning of India’s state machinery. Talking aloud of these goals seemed to be an attempt to reassure lawmakers and investors both that investing in India would get them time-bound returns.

Because it was only recently that Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, said that a “powerful” official system and a need for foreign companies to “know someone” in the government was making U.S. companies “nervous” about investing in India.

He linked India’s growth with the goal of a green-economy - ‘a light carbon foot print’. This is a reaffirmation of the huge step away from the decade-long stand of developing nations that did not agree to binding carbon-reductions on account of using conventional energy sources to fuel economic growth.

India’s goal of a light carbon foot print means that American companies like SunEdison have a market for their products and ‘the U.S. is an indispensible partner’ in ‘India’s forward march’.

Modi’s turn of phrase of looking eastwards from India to California encompassed two points – he shifted the direction of his speech to highlight innovations in Silicon Valley by Indian-Americans and the role of China as a threat to which India could be a credible partner for the U.S. He spoke of the lack of ‘an agreed security architecture’ in Asia along with the other challenges that China posed without mentioning the country. ‘Threats in cyber-security and outer-space’ obviously spoke of Chinese actions against American assets.

His last-third of the speech focused on international relations to highlight how India’s work in the international sphere dove-tailed with U.S.’ own interests. The prime minister spelled out how a successful partnership between India and the U.S. could bring ‘peace, prosperity, and stability’ from ‘Asia to Africa’ and from ‘Indian Ocean to the Pacific’ – a specific hint at China’s attempt to establish a maritime silk-route and in turn assert dominance in the region.

Modi mentioned India’s work in Afghanistan – one that India should be truly proud of – as it is the largest regional aid contributor (and sixth globally) in the re-building effort. Afghanistan’s Parliament building has been built by India (and cost approximately $90 million) as is the dam in Herat.

By highlighting India’s efforts in Afghanistan, Modi showed the common linkages of the two country’s efforts in the country. Incidentally, U.S. President Obama approved a larger role for U.S. forces outside NATO bases in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in February this year as Afghan forces failed to contain the resurgence of the Taliban.

For the next five minutes, Modi spoke of the menace of ‘terrorism’. This word got mentioned seven times in under five minutes. (Terrorism/terrorist/terror was mentioned 10 times in the entirety of the speech). The prime minister did not shy away from pointing fingers and was categorical in describing Pakistan as the country where terrorism is ‘incubated’. The U.S. Congress also recently disallowed the funding of F-16 jets for Pakistan which was acknowledged by Modi as ‘just the first step to holding propagators of terror accountable.

‘As we deepen our partnership, there will be times when we will have differing perspectives. But since our interests and concerns converge, the autonomy in decision making and diversity in our perspectives can only add values...’ With these closing words, Modi however left a little bit of a wiggle room for an independent Indian foreign-policy and to not be blamed as becoming America’s stooge in Asia (CPM back home, however, has already launched a scathing attack).

As Modi got a final round of applause at the end of his speech and handshakes from both Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker Ryan, U.S. lawmakers rushed to meet him and get his autograph. A definite sign that many if not most had been convinced by the speech that very smartly showed the mutual benefits of a India-U.S. partnership.

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