Modi’s speech to Congress: Bullish on India, bullish on the U.S.

Quoting Walt Whitman in his speech to a joint meeting of Congress last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared: “there is a new symphony in play.” He was referring to the relationship, but there were some new themes in his speech as well, in addition to a few familiar, predictable ones.

The old

Shared Democratic Values. Modi’s speech covered some of the same ground on shared democratic values as his predecessors. Referring to Congress as a “temple of democracy”—a phrased he’s used in the past for the Indian parliament—and to India’s constitution as its “real holy book,” he stressed that freedom and equality were shared beliefs. In a section that elicited laughter, he also commented that the two countries shared certain practices—legislatures known for bipartisanship and operating harmoniously. Also par for the course was Modi’s emphasis on India’s diversity. An implicit response to critics of India on human rights (including minority rights), freedom of the press, and tolerance of dissent, Modi noted that India’s constitution protected the equal rights of all citizens and enshrined freedom of faith. Echoing former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s words on unity in diversity, he asserted “India lives as one; India grows as one; India celebrates as one.” 

Terrorism. Like Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh before him, Modi highlighted the challenge of terrorism, stressing it was globally the “biggest threat.” Acknowledging existing India-U.S. counter-terrorism cooperation, he called for more, including an approach “that isolates those who harbor, support and sponsor terrorists; that does not distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists; and that delinks religion from terrorism.” Like his predecessors, Modi did not explicitly mention Pakistan, but alluded to it. He asserted that while it was a global problem, terrorism was “incubated” in India’s neighborhood. In what seemed like a reference to the Congressional hold on the subsidized sale of F-16s to Pakistan, the Indian prime minister also lauded that body 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.” 

The Indian Economy. From Jawaharlal Nehru onward, prime ministers have outlined their domestic objectives in speeches to Congress, highlighting the reforms they’ve undertaken. Modi did too, highlighting India’s growth rate and economic opportunities, while acknowledging that much remained to be done. And there were also subtle responses to criticisms of Indian economic policy: for example, the remark about legislative gridlock suggested that American policymakers should understand why some reforms in India are taking time; the quip about India not claiming intellectual property rights on yoga was a rejoinder to those who give India a hard time about intellectual property rights (especially in the pharmaceutical sector). He also noted that in the past “wagers were made on our failure,” and yet Indians have time and again found a way to survive and succeed.

The new

Anti-Declinism. For those promising to make America great again, Modi had a message: it already is. In a speech to the U.S.-India Business Council the day before, he exuded optimism—not just about India, but the United States as well, asserting that, to him, “America is not just a country with a great past; it is a country with an exciting future.” In his speech to Congress, he referred to the U.S. as “great” at least four times and spoke of its “innovative genius.” Recalling that he’d thus far visited half of all American states, he noted what he believed was the United States’ “real strength”: Americans’ ability to dream big and be bold. 

In an election year when the nature and extent of American engagement with the world is being debated, Modi acknowledged the country’s global contributions and called for a continued U.S. role in the world. He applauded—and led members of Congress in a round of applause—for “the great sacrifices of the men and women from ‘The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave’ in service of mankind.” With the exception of Nehru, who paid his respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Indian premiers have tended not to mention American troops—partly a result of differing views on the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq wars. Modi, on the other hand, explicitly mentioned U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, where “the sacrifices of Americans have helped create a better life.” 

In a more challenging, complex, and uncertain world, he asserted that U.S.-Indian engagement could make an impact, 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.” (No prizes for guessing the country that went unnamed). 

The Open Embrace. Modi-Obama hugs have fueled many a tweet. But the speech signaled and reflected a much broader embrace—an India-U.S. one that has been in the works for at least the last 17 years but has become much more visible in the last two. In 2000, addressing Congress, Vajpayee called for the two countries to “remove the shadow of hesitation that lies between us and our joint vision.” Not all his compatriots will agree, but Modi declared: “Today, our relationship has overcome the hesitations of history” and recalled Vajpayee labeling the two as “natural allies.” Listing the ways the relationship had grown closer, he emphasized that this “remarkable story” was not a partisan effort: “[t]hrough the cycle of elections and transitions of administrations the intensity of our engagements has only grown.” He also talked about what the two countries could do together, and stressed that the relationship was good for India. While he’s previously called the United States “a principal partner in the realization of India’s rise as a responsible, influential world power,” he went further this time, stating: “In every sector of India’s forward march, I see the U.S. as an indispensable partner.” 

Not a Free-Rider. But throughout the speech, Modi asserted that this relationship benefited both countries “in great measure,” with a “positive impact on the lives” of people in each. Echoing Singh, he noted that many members of Congress indeed believed that “a stronger and prosperous India is in America’s strategic interest.” Modi made the case that India is not a free rider—that through its businesses, market, talent, and diaspora it is contributing to American economy and society. The day before, in his speech to business leaders, he stressed that India was also “poised to contribute as a new engine of global growth” (and made a pitch for support to such “democratic” engines).

Modi furthermore highlighted Indian contributions to global and regional peace and prosperity, noting, for example, that its “soldiers too have fallen in distant battlefields” for freedom and democracy (alluding to the millions that fought in the World Wars). He also highlighted India’s efforts in Afghanistan, its troop contribution to U.N. peacekeeping operations, its role in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, and its evacuation operations in Yemen in which it rescued Americans as well. In addition, Modi noted India’s contributions of ideas, whether yoga or non-violent protest. And he stressed that India would be a responsible stakeholder and security provider—one that, in partnership with the United States, could “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.” But he also called for international institutions to reflect this role and “the realities of today.”

Members of Congress, for their part, will look to see whether and how Modi’s rhetoric will translate into reality. The prime minister suggested that it won’t always be the way the United States would like. He didn’t use the term “strategic autonomy,” but talked of “autonomy in decision-making”—while noting that it, as well as “diversity in our perspectives,” weren’t bad things for the partnership. And, as is his preferred style, he came up with 3Cs to characterize the state of the relationship: “comfort, candor, and convergence.” Whether they remain characteristic of the partnership, and to what degree, will partly depend on who is the next U.S. president and how she or he sees the U.S. role in the world and India’s place in it.