President Obama, Prime Minister Modi address the Press ahead of India’s Republic Day
By Geeta Goindi
New Delhi, India, January 2015 – Bonding over ‘Chai pe Charcha’ (conversation over tea) and a walk-cum-talk on the sprawling lawns of Hyderabad House following intensive discussions, President Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi emerged after some three hours to address a packed press conference.
In the only event of its kind during President Obama’s historic three-day visit to India where he was the chief guest on Republic Day, the chemistry between the two leaders took centerstage. There was a comfort-level which arises from closeness. The Prime Minister addressed the President by his first name, Barack; the President reciprocated by called him ‘Modi’, both tossing aside formality to the surprise of reporters.
In a spirit of camaraderie, the two leaders shook hands spontaneously during the joint press meet and hugged each other at the end.
During the eagerly anticipated question-and-answer session, following prepared remarks by both leaders, an Indian journalist queried Prime Minister Modi about his personal rapport with President Obama and the conversation they have away from the cameras. The Indian leader quipped, “Pardeh mein rehne do” (let it be concealed).
He did disclose, “When we interact away from cameras, we get to know each other intimately. I and Barack share that friendship. That openness helps us talk easily on phone, chat comfortably and even talk in a lighter vein. This chemistry has brought Barack and me closer, Washington and Delhi closer, and the people of America and India closer”.
In a trip replete with bonhomie and symbolism, sans any single ground-breaking announcement, President Obama greeted journalists with “Namaste… Mera pyaar bhara Namaskar”. Thanking Prime Minister Modi for his “invitation to join the people of India on Republic Day”, Obama said, “I’m honored to be the first American President to attend this celebration, as well as the first President to visit India twice. And this reflects my commitment, since the beginning of my presidency, to deepen our ties with India”.
Among the US delegation on hand at the Press meet were: Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker; US Trade Representative Mike Froman; US Ambassador to India Rich Verma; Raj Shah who heads USAID; and Nisha Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia.
“I’m pleased to be joined by members of my administration as well as members of Congress and business leaders from the United States, all who believe that a strong relationship with India is critical for America’s success in the 21st century”, Obama said. “As two great democracies, two innovative economies, two societies dedicated to the empowerment of our people – including millions of Indian-Americans – we are natural partners”.
He acknowledged Prime Minister Modi’s “strong personal commitment to the India-US relationship”. Referring to the Indian leader’s visit to the US last Fall, Obama noted how his reputation preceded him. “As many of you know, in New York, the Prime Minister appeared in Madison Square Garden and was greeted like a Bollywood star”, he said, to laughter.
“And it was, I think, a signal of the deep friendship between our peoples as well as our close ties that we are working to expand even further. At the White House, we agreed to take this partnership to a new level. We advanced that work today”.
Obama thanked Prime Minister Modi for his hospitality, “including our Chai pe Charcha”, he said to more laughter, adding, “We need more of those in the White House”.
The President affirmed, “even as this visit is rich with symbolism, we made substantive progress”. The bilateral discussions focused on issues such as trade and investment, defense ties, climate change and breaking a logjam that has held up the sale of American nuclear energy technology to India.
Obama mentioned that Prime Minister Modi had “described his ambitious efforts to empower rural Indians with bank accounts, and to ensure clean water and clean air for the Indian people. And we want to be partners in this effort”, he said.
“In the last few years, trade between our two countries has increased by some 60 percent, toward a record $100 billion. We want to trade even more”, he said. “So, we welcome the reforms that the Prime Minister is pursuing to make it easier to do business here in India”.
Regarding the landmark civil nuclear agreement, Obama told reporters, “We achieved a breakthrough understanding on two issues that were holding up our ability to advance our civil nuclear cooperation, and we’re committed to moving towards full implementation. And this is an important step that shows how we can work together to elevate our relationship”, he said.
The two leaders have made a personal commitment to work together to pursue a global climate deal in Paris this year. President Obama told reporters, “As I indicated to him (Prime Minister Modi), I think India’s voice is very important on this issue. Perhaps no country could potentially be more affected by the impacts of climate change, and no country is going to be more important in moving forward a strong agreement than India”, he said. “So we appreciate his leadership”.
Regarding defense and security cooperation, the President said, “We’ve renewed the framework that guides our defense cooperation for another 10 years. And in a major step forward for our relationship, our Defense Technology and Trade Initiative will allow us to jointly develop and produce new defense technologies. We’ve also agreed to a new vision for the Asia Pacific so that we’re doing more together to advance our shared security and prosperity in this critical region”.
Thanking Prime Minister Modi “for India’s strong counterterrorism cooperation”, he emphasized that “even as America’s combat mission is over in Afghanistan, we’re going to continue to be strong and reliable partners for the Afghan people, who have benefitted from India’s generous assistance over many years. I thanked the Prime Minister for his continued support for ongoing efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and to arrive at a just diplomatic solution”, he said.
Obama reiterated America’s support for “a reformed UN Security Council that includes India as a permanent member. At the same time, we see India playing a greater role in ensuring international security and peace and meeting shared challenges”, he said. “As a leading contributor to UN peacekeeping missions for many years, India can help the world do even more to protect citizens in conflict zones. We welcome India’s leadership in combatting diseases and promoting global health that advances the rights and dignity of citizens around the world”.
In his remarks to the Press, Prime Minister Modi underscored that “terrorism remains a principal global threat. It is taking on a new character, even as existing challenges persist”, he noted. Together with Obama, he believes a comprehensive global strategy and approach is required to combat the menace.
“There should be no distinction between terrorist groups”, Modi stressed at the joint press conference. “Every country must fulfill its commitment to eliminate terrorist safe havens and bring terrorists to justice”. India and the US have vowed to “deepen our bilateral security cooperation against terrorist groups, and we will further enhance our counterterrorism capabilities, including in the area of technology”, he declared.
On the often contentious issue of climate change, the Indian leader maintained that the agreement which has been concluded between the United States and China, setting ambitious targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, does not impose any pressure on Delhi. “India is an independent country, and there is no pressure on us from any country or any person”, he said.
At the same time, he admitted that “there is pressure” of another kind. “When we think about the future generations and what kind of world we are going to give them, then there is pressure”, he said. “Climate change itself is a huge pressure. Global warming is a huge pressure. And all those who think about a better life and a better world for the future generations, those who are concerned about this, then it is their duty and their conscience, they would want to give a better lifestyle to the future generations, a good life and a good environment. There is pressure for all those people. There is pressure on all countries, on all governments, and on all people”.
Reiterating the close partnership between India and the US, and his personal friendship with President Obama, Modi quoted Lord Buddha who said, ‘Noble friends and companions are the whole of the holy life’, drawing a nod of approval from his esteemed friend and ‘Chief Guest’.
“We have decided to give this critical partnership its due trust and sustained attention”, Modi told journalists. “For this, we have agreed that India and the United States must have regular summits at greater frequency. And we also established hotlines between myself and Barack and our national security advisors”, he disclosed.
President Obama mentioned, “the United States and India have declared a new Declaration of Friendship that elevates and formalizes our partnership. And not only is it grounded in the values we share, but it commits us to more regular meetings at the leaders level, and sets up frequent consultations across our government”.
He cautioned, “This new partnership will not happen overnight. It’s going to take time to build and some patience. But it’s clear from this visit that we have a new and perhaps unprecedented opportunity, and deepening our ties with India is going to remain a top foreign policy priority for my administration”, he pledged, citing the bilateral mantra, ‘Chalein Saath Saath’ (forward we go together).
The President noted, “Part of the reason we’re such natural partners is because we share values — as former colonies; as the two largest democracies in the world; as entrepreneurial nations; as people who believe in the freedom and dignity and worth of all individuals. And so it’s not surprising then that we have a friendship, because hopefully we’re reflecting the values of our peoples. And what I’m very excited about is, given the Prime Minister’s energy and ambition for his country and lifting people out of poverty, and moving forward on the reform agenda that he’s put forward, that that affection can then be translated into very specific actions. And we’re seeing that reflected here today”.
On a lighter note, he shared a snippet from his personal conversation with Prime Minister Modi — “We compared how much sleep each of us is getting. And it turns out that Modi is getting even less sleep than me. But of course that’s because he’s still new. After you’ve been doing this for about six years, maybe he’ll be able to get an extra hour”.