US Lawmakers Clamor for Prime Minister Modi’s Autograph, House Chamber is Packed for his Address to the US Congress
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, June 8, 2016 – Prime Minister Modi received a remarkable reception on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, where he addressed a joint session of the US Congress – a welcome befitting the leader of the world’s largest democracy and underscoring the immense importance US lawmakers accord to bilateral ties.
He is the first world leader to address a joint session of Congress in 2016 and given that it is an election year, he may very well be the only one. It is a rare honor accorded to a privileged few by the most powerful lawmakers in the world.
During the course of his address, from 11:18 am to 12:04 pm, so eloquent and in English, there were multiple standing ovations by bipartisan members of Congress, several rounds of sustained applause, clapping and cheers – loudest, by far, for the Diaspora.
Prime Minister Modi credited “a unique and dynamic bridge of three million Indian-Americans” for connecting India and the US. He told US lawmakers, “They are among your best CEOs, academics, astronauts, scientists, economists, doctors, even Spelling Bee champions. They are your strength. They are also the pride of India. They symbolize the best of both our societies”.
It was really an astonishing sight inside the House chamber. When Modi entered, he was greeted with three minutes of sustained applause; at the conclusion of the address, several members of Congress clamored for his autograph.
And it was a ‘Full House’. The venue – which can accommodate 623 persons on the House Floor, visitor and press galleries – was packed to capacity by US lawmakers, Indian and American government officials, eminent leaders and trailblazers of the Indian-American community, members of the press and media.
Modi’s speech — replete with substance, wit, humor and even poetry – clearly resonated with US lawmakers. By emphasizing how “a strong India-US partnership can anchor peace, prosperity and stability from Asia to Africa and from Indian Ocean to the Pacific” he struck a chord with concurring US lawmakers.
While the executive branch of the US government engages in balancing and counter-balancing acts in the Asia Pacific region, the US legislature remains steadfast in its support of India.
Throughout the address, Modi underscored the connection, special bond, commonality, the shared values between India and the United States.
“Today, our relationship has overcome the hesitations of history”, he said. “Comfort, candor and convergence define our conversations”.
With successive governments, “the intensity of our engagements has only grown”, he told US lawmakers. “And in this exciting journey, the US Congress has acted as its compass. You helped us turn barriers into bridges of partnership”.
Recounting how Congress passed the India-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in 2008, changing “the very colors of leaves of our relationship”, he said, “We thank you for being there when the partnership needed you the most”.
The Prime Minister also expressed gratitude for the solidarity with India shown by the US Congress in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks, in November 2008.
Pointing out that terrorism is incubated in India’s neighborhood, he did not mince any words when it came to this scourge which he called “the biggest threat” in the world, today. “It may go by different names – Laskhar-e-Taiba, Taliban, ISIS. But, it’s philosophy is common: of hate, murder and violence”, he said.
Modi commended US lawmakers “for sending a clear message to those who preach and practice terrorism for political gains. Refusing to reward them is the first step towards holding them accountable for their actions”, he said.
The Prime Minister called for deepening security cooperation between India and the US which will: isolate those who harbor, support and sponsor terrorists; draw no distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists; and de-link religion from terrorism.
He spoke of “a shared commitment to rebuilding a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan”, and responding to global challenges which warrant humanitarian relief, working together in international forums such as G-20, the East Asia Summit, and climate change summits.
Continuing to highlight the closeness of ideals and values between India and the US, the Prime Minister noted that Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence movement inspired the heroism of American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Our nations may have been shaped by differing histories, cultures and faiths. Yet, our faith in democracy for our nations and liberty for our countrymen is common”, he said. “All citizens are created equal”.
Modi noted that the founders of India “created a modern nation with freedom, democracy and equality as the essence of its soul”, whereby it continues to celebrate age-old diversity. “India lives as one; India grows as one; India celebrates as one”, he underscored.
The Prime Minister made it abundantly clear that for his government, “the Constitution is its real holy book. And in that holy book, freedom of faith, speech and franchise, and equality of all citizens regardless of background, are enshrined as fundamental rights”.
On a witty and humorous note, he likened the bipartisanship of US lawmakers to the workings of the Rajya Sabha where his Bharatiya Janata Party does not have a majority.
Noting that over 30 million Americans practice India’s ancient science of Yoga, he quipped, “We have not yet claimed intellectual property rights on it”, alluding to an American obsession with IPR.
Reiterating the upswing in India-US relations, the Prime Minister concluded his address by quoting the American poet, Walt Whitman, who wrote, “The orchestra have sufficiently tuned their instruments, the baton has given the signal”, adding “there is a new symphony in play”.
Modi spent a good part of the day on Capitol Hill meeting with influential members of Congress. Following his address, he was feted at a luncheon hosted by House Speaker Paul Ryan, and later at a reception organized by the House and Senate foreign relations committees in conjunction with the two India caucuses.
Congressman Ryan (Republican – Wisconsin), who formally invited Modi to address a joint meeting of Congress, noted, “India is the most populous democracy and soon it is going to be the most populous country. The friendship between our nations is a pillar of stability in a very, very important region”, he underscored.
“It was an honor to host Prime Minister Modi at the Capitol”, the House Speaker said. “He spoke eloquently about the importance of a strong US-India relationship to promoting peace and freedom around the globe. Given the importance of fighting poverty, it was encouraging to hear the prime minister’s steadfast commitment to making sure everyone has an opportunity to rise. I share his commitment to strengthening our critical partnership, and I thank him for joining us”.
Earlier, upon the Prime Minister’s arrival at Capitol Hill, Congressman Ryan expressed his condolences for the 2012 massacre at the Oak Creek Gurdwara which is situated in his District, and he lauded the qualities of compassion and forgiveness that were evinced by the Sikh community. Quoting the lawmaker, Vikas Swarup, official spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, tweeted: “Following shooting incident in Gurdwara in my constituency, the Sikh community’s compassion and forgiveness has been a lesson”.
Welcoming the Prime Minister at the reception held in the Cannon Caucus Room, Senator Bob Corker, Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “With your sense of humor and the way you delivered that speech, I think really identifies why we have such close ties”.
He told a packed gathering, “The fact is that our political, strategic and economic ties are better than they have ever been. We know that these are going to be even greater. While our ties are with the people of India, we know that with you as their leader, the possibilities are at an all-time high”, he said, looking at Modi.
Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, Ranking Member of the HFAC, extolled “the great Indian-American community” which, he said, “has brought such incredible energy to this relationship. It’s the secret weapon for both countries, driving stronger engagement and helping keep things on track during challenging times”.
“So, Mr. Prime Minister, your visit will energize this work even further”, he said, adding, “I’m confident that Congress will remain focused on India as an anchor of stability in the region and a key American partner in Asia”.
Republican Congressman Ed Royce of California, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “We understand that India is in a tough neighborhood, but we also understand that with your words here today, that you have, with that symphony that you spoke of, set a new note”.
Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, Ranking Member of the SFRC, who returned from a trip to India last week and has been raising the issue of human rights, emphasized on the people-to-people ties between India and the US, “including the people in this room, the way they have helped to connect our countries”, he said.
Congressman Ami Bera of California, Democratic Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans”, stated, “India is a key partner of the United States, so I was pleased to have Speaker Ryan grant my request to bring Prime Minister Modi to Congress to address his vision on the US-India partnership”.
Currently, the only Indian-American serving in Congress, he averred, “As the son of parents who emigrated from India, this is a special privilege for me”.
The lawmaker, who invited National Spelling Bee finalist Snehaa Ganesh Kumar and her mother to attend the speech, said, “I’m glad the Prime Minister made note of the National Spelling Bee champions from the diaspora during his address”.
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (Democrat – Hawaii), the only Hindu lawmaker serving on Capitol Hill, noted, “Since Prime Minister Modi was first elected in 2014, he has made active engagement with the United States a priority on many levels including exploring mutually beneficial economic opportunities, stronger government-to-government relations, and enhanced security engagements”.
Modi is the fifth Indian leader to address the US Congress, following Prime Ministers Dr. Manmohan Singh (July 19, 2005), Atal Bihari Vajpayee (September 14, 2000), P.V. Narasimha Rao (May 18, 1994) and Rajiv Gandhi (July 13, 1985).