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Five takeways from Modi's speech to US Congress

  • Published at 08:25 pm June 9th, 2016
  • Last updated at 04:37 pm June 14th, 2016
Five takeways from Modi's speech to US Congress

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered an ode to US-India relations to a joint session of Congress Wednesday, capping something of a phoenix-like rise for both the man and his country's relations with the US.

[caption id="attachment_3120" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]India Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Wednesday India Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Wednesday REUTERS[/caption]

Modi is the fifth Indian prime minister to address a joint session of US lawmakers (sixth if you include Nehru, who addressed the House and Senate separately in 1949), and from the packed audience it seemed as if they had momentarily put aside the intensely riveting politics around the two presumptive nominees of both major parties-- Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, to come and hear Modi in the Capitol Hill.

Source: Reuters

By now, the man from Gujarat is clearly a pastmaster at the teleprompter. It is also totally irrelevant that he speaks in a Gujarat/Hindi accent. In fact, in this “land of the free and the home of the brave,” another American aphorism with which Modi brought the House down, the nondescript origins of Narendradas Damodardas Modi and his consequent rise and rise are treated with unusual interest. Especially when the opposition in India shows few signs of attempting to pick itself up and give Modi a good fight.

[caption id="attachment_3121" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Reuters India Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Wednesday  REUTERS[/caption]

Here are the five takeaways from Modi’s speech--

1. The American treatment of prime minister Narendra Modi as a pariah because of his alleged role in the Gujarat riots of 2002 in which about a 1000 Muslims were killed, is a thing of the past. The Americans have decided that debates about tolerance and democracy and free speech and the right to eat any kind of meat must belong to the stratosphere inside India. The US is not going to lecture India anymore, and they are certainly not going to lecture Modi. The Americans are pragmatists and they need India for a variety of reasons. This includes the hope that India will join the so-called “containment” of an increasingly powerful China by an increasingly nervous US. They also want India to join the US effort to put Afghanistan back on its feet. Moreover, frustrated by the Pakistani establishment’s decision to undercut America’s initiatives against the Taliban, the US is coming round to agreeing with India’s description of Pakistan being the “epicentre of terrorism” around the world.

2. Prime Minister Modi is equally pragmatic. When the US reissued his visa to visit the US in 2014 as prime minister -- abandoning its own 2005 policy which cancelled his visa because of Modi’s alleged role in the Gujarat 2002 riots -- there were many Indians who suggested that the PM “not go” to the US because of the insults and humiliation the US had meted out to him. But Modi chose to ignore that advice and went ahead. He has since met Barack Obama seven times. He calls him by his first name, Barack, like the other leaders of nations considered allies as well as non-Nato allies. Two years later, that pragmatic policy has paid off. In the midst of a global slowdown, US business may be finally turning to look at India. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced his decision to invest $3bn more into India soon after he met Modi along with 22 other CEOs, as well as separately.

Source: Reuters

3. Modi has made India a closer partner of America -- although even he stopped short of using the problematic word, “ally” -- than any other prime minister since independence. “We will walk shoulder to shoulder together,” Modi told US President Barack Obama when he met him on June 8, and his speech at the Congress was littered with words like “connectivity,” “cooperation,” “shared practices,” and of course, “partnership.” So even though India is still not a US ally, unlike Nato allies such as the UK and Turkey, or non-Nato allies such as Australia and Japan, it looks like it is becoming America’s preferred partner in Asia.

[caption id="attachment_3123" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Reuters US President Barack Obama, right, listens to remarks by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, after their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC on Tuesday REUTERS[/caption]

4. The PM’s trip to the US was certainly about saying farewell to Barack Obama, but equally to tell the bipartisan US Congress that he is willing to deal with whoever becomes the next president of the US. No wonder he was aiming to please the Congress, especially sections who wonder about his democratic credentials. Modi’s invocation that the “Constitution is his only holy book,” is aimed at reassuring this section of the US political class.

[caption id="attachment_3124" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, meets with US House Speaker Paul Ryan, left, before addressing a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber in Capitol Hill, Washington, DC on Wednesday REUTERS[/caption]

5. Modi, simply, cannot refrain from taking a dig at his political opponents inside India, even when he is abroad. In his speech at the US Congress, he joked that he is the target of partisan politics, especially in the Upper House of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, just like the “bipartisan spirit” that prevailed in the US Congress.

Modi wants the US to lean to China again, to get India a consensus at the Nuclear Suppliers' Group. The Americans seem to be willing to do so – again. But Modi must understand that foreign policy is above politics. That’s how it used to be in the good, old days. As prime minister, he has the responsibility of returning India to that position.

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