Standing in front of the US Congress in the House Chamber, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday sent out a loud and clear message to Pakistan.
He commended the Congressmen for sending a message to those who practise terrorism by refusing to reward them, in what was an obvious reference to the US Congress’s recent objection to American government funding purchase of US F-16 fighter jets by Pakistan.
Sitting in the front row, US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson nodded and clapped along with the members of the House.
This was one of the 64 times the House clapped during Modi’s 45-minute address. In the course of it, Modi used the word ‘partnership’ 13 times, almost double that by Manmohan Singh during his address. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had talked about it only three times in his speech.
Indicating that terrorism was on top of the agenda, the PM also brought in Afghanistan, and said the hour was to “deepen security cooperation”. “In the territory stretching from west of India’s border to Africa, it (terrorism) may go by different names, from Laskhar-e-Toiba, to Taliban to ISIS… But its philosophy is common: of hate, murder and violence,” he said.
Modi added, “Although its (terrorism’s) shadow is spreading across the world, it is incubated in India’s neighbourhood. I commend members of the US Congress for sending a clear message to those who preach and practise terrorism for political gains. Refusing to reward them is the first step towards holding them accountable for their actions.”
He said that the fight against terrorism has to be fought at many levels, and the traditional tools of military, intelligence or diplomacy alone were not enough. Modi said New Delhi and Washington should base it on a policy — “that isolates those who harbour, support and sponsor terrorists, that does not distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists, and that delinks religion from terrorism”.
Seeking those who “believe in humanity” to “fight for it as one”, the PM received a standing ovation from the Congress, when he said, “Terrorism must be delegitimised.”
His take on terrorism was different from Manmohan Singh’s, who had argued, in his 2005 speech, that open societies are vulnerable to terrorism. Modi’s position was similar to Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2001, who had said that no region is a greater source of terrorism than India’s neighbourhood.
As he outlined his vision for India, Modi said, “Our 800 million youth are particularly impatient. India is undergoing a profound social and economic change. A billion of its citizens are already politically empowered. My dream is to economically empower them through many social and economic transformations. And do so by 2022, the 75th anniversary of India’s independence.”
Listing out his “long and ambitious” to-do list, he invited another standing ovation when he said, “These are not just aspirations. They are goals to be reached in a finite time-frame. And to be achieved with a light carbon foot print, with greater emphasis on renewables.”
His view of India’s development was similar to Rajiv Gandhi’s 1985 address, who talked about an India “strong, self-reliant, and in the front rank of the nations of the world, in the service of mankind”.
Modi’s reference to climate change brought cheering Congressmen to their feet another time, making it at least seven standing ovations for the PM during the address.
Against the backdrop of the Congress-mandated US Commission for International Religious Freedom’s annual report that claimed religious freedom in India was on a “negative trajectory” in 2015, the PM defended India’s human rights record. “For my 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,” Modi said.
“800 million of my countrymen may exercise the freedom of franchise once every five years. But, all the 1.25 billion of our citizens have freedom from fear, which they exercise every moment of their lives,” he said. “Today, across its streets and institutions, in its villages and cities, anchored in equal respect for all faiths, and in the melody of hundreds of its languages and dialects, India lives as one, India grows as one, India celebrates as one.”
The House Chamber was almost filled to capacity during Modi’s speech with US Congressmen and their aides, while the visitor’s gallery overflowed with Indian-Americans.
Top CEOs like Indra Nooyi and Jeff Bezos looked on as Modi said, “As US businesses search for new areas of economic growth, markets for their goods, a pool of skilled resources, and global locations to produce and manufacture, India could be their ideal partner.”
Modi also hinted at China, as he said, “In Asia, the absence of an agreed security architecture creates uncertainty. Threats of terror are expanding, and new challenges are emerging in cyber and outer-space. And global institutions, conceived in 20th century, seem unable to cope with new challenges or take on new responsibilities… Our engagement can make a difference by promoting cooperation not dominance, connectivity not isolation, respect for global commons, inclusive not exclusive mechanisms, and above all adherence to international rules and norms.”
To another round of applause, the PM said, “A strong India-US partnership can anchor peace, prosperity and stability from Asia to Africa and from Indian Ocean to the Pacific. It can also help ensure security of the sea lanes of commerce and freedom of navigation on seas.”
Pitching for UN reforms at this point, Modi said, “The effectiveness of our cooperation would increase if international institutions framed with the mindset of the 20th century were to reflect the realities of today.”
Modi struck a chord at the outset when he applauded America and said that Gandhi’s non-violence inspired the heroism of Martin Luther King.
Talking about the shared ideals, he recalled that Vajpayee had stood there and gave a call to step out of the “shadow of hesitation” of the past. “Today, our relationship has overcome the hesitations of history,” he said.
Lauding the US Congress for turning “barriers into bridges of partnership”, he gave them credit for 2008, when it passed the Indo-US civil nuclear deal. “It changed the very colours of our relationship… We thank you for being there when we needed you the most.”
At this point, he also took a dig at the partisan nature of parliaments of the two countries. “I am informed that the working of the US Congress is harmonious. I am also told that you are well-known for your bipartisanship. Well, you are not alone. Time and again, I have also witnessed a similar spirit in Indian Parliament, especially in our Upper House. So, as you can see, we have many shared practices,” he said, evoking peals of laughter and applause from Congressmen.
Driving home the strength of India’s soft power and its community, he said, “India’s ancient heritage of yoga has over 30 million practitioners in the US. It is estimated that more Americans bend for yoga than to throw a curve ball. And, no Mr Speaker, we have not yet claimed intellectual property right on yoga.”
When he said that the Indian community were among “your best CEOs, academics, astronauts, scientists, economists, doctors, even spelling bee champions”, the crowd in the visitor’s gallery stood up and applauded, along with US Congressmen and women.
He was in line with the previous four Indian PMs to address the Congress, who have also acknowledged NRI role.
He was received by Vice-President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan, and shook hands with many Congressmen. Later, he was seen signing autographs for some of them as well.