What can the U.S. Congress’ interest in Prime Minister Modi’s visit translate to?

On his fourth trip to the U.S. as Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi will spend some quality time on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, where he’ll address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. House Speaker Paul Ryan will also host the Indian premier for a lunch, which will be followed by a reception hosted jointly by the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees and the India Caucus. What’s the significance of this Congressional engagement and what might be Modi’s message? 

Given that all the most-recent Indian leaders who’ve held five-year terms have addressed such joint meetings of Congress, some have asked whether Ryan’s invitation to Modi is a big deal. The answer is, yes, it is an honour and not one extended all that often. Since 1934, there have been only 117 such speeches. Leaders from France, Israel and the United Kingdom have addressed joint meetings the most times (8 each), followed by Mexico (7), and Ireland, Italy and South Korea (6 each). With this speech, India will join Germany on the list with leaders having addressed 5 joint meetings of Congress: Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, P.V. Narashima Rao in 1994, Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2000 and Manmohan Singh in 2005. India’s first premier, Jawaharlal Nehru, spoke to the House and Senate in separate back-to-back sessions in 1949 as well. 

Congress is a key stakeholder in the U.S.-India relationship and can play a significant supportive or spoiler role. While American presidents have a lot more lee-way on foreign policy than domestic policy, Congress is not without influence on U.S. foreign relations, and shapes the context for American engagement abroad. Moreover, the breadth and depth of the U.S.-India relationship, as well as the blurring of the line between what constitutes domestic and foreign policy these days means that India’s options can be affected by American legislative decisions or the political mood on a range of issues from trade to immigration, energy to defense. 

The Indian Foreign Secretary recently said that the U.S. legislature was at “very much at the heart” of the relationship today. He noted it has been “very supportive” and “even in some more difficult days where actually the Congress has been the part of the US polity which has been very sympathetic to India.” But India’s had rocky experiences on the Hill as well–which only heightens the need to engage members of Congress at the highest levels. 

The speech and the other interactions offer Modi an opportunity to acknowledge the role of Congress in building bilateral relations, highlight shared interests and values, outline his vision for India and the relationship, as well as tackle some Congressional concerns and note some of India’s own. He’ll be speaking to multiple audiences in Congress, with members there either because of the strategic imperative for the relationship, others because of the economic potential, yet others because of the values imperative–and then there are those who’ll be there because it is important to their constituents, whether business or the Indian diaspora. There is also the audience outside Congress, including in India, where the speech will play in primetime. What will Modi’s message be? A glimpse at previous speeches might offer some clues, though Modi is likely also to want to emphasize change. 

The speeches that came before

The speeches of previous prime ministers have addressed some common themes. They’ve acknowledged shared democratic values. They’ve mentioned the two-way flow of inspiration and ideas with individuals like Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King getting multiple mentions. They’ve noted the influence of American founding documents or fathers on the Indian constitution. They’ve highlighted India’s achievements, while stressing that much remains to be done. 

They’ve noted their country’s diversity, and the almost-unique task Indian leaders have had–to achieve development for hundreds of millions in a democratic context. Since Gandhi, each has mentioned the Indian diaspora, noting its contributions to the U.S. Each prime minister has also expressed gratitude for American support or the contribution the U.S. partnership has made to India’s development and security. They’ve acknowledged differences, without dwelling on them. They’ve addressed contemporary Congressional concerns that existed about Indian policy–in some cases offering a defense of them, in others’ explaining the reason behind the policy.

Many of the premiers called for Congress to understand that India, while a democracy like the U.S. and sharing many common interests, would not necessarily achieve its objectives the same way as the U.S. And each subtly has asked for time and space, accommodation and support to achieve their goals–and argued it’s in American interests to see a strong, stable, prosperous, democratic India.

In terms of subjects, each previous speech has mentioned economic growth and development as a key government priority, highlighting what policymakers were doing to achieve them. Since Gandhi, all have mentioned nuclear weapons though with different emphases: he spoke of disarmament; Rao of de-nuclearization and concerns about proliferation; two years after India’s nuclear test, Vajpayee noted India’s voluntary moratorium on testing and tried to reassure Congress about Indian intentions; and speaking in the context of the U.S.-India civil nuclear talks, Singh noted the importance of civil nuclear energy and defended India’s track record on nuclear non-proliferation.

Since Rao, every prime minister has mentioned the challenge that terrorism posed for both the U.S. and India, with Vajpayee and Singh implicitly noting the challenge that a neighboring country poses in this regard from India’s perspective. And Rao and Singh made the case for India to get a permanent seat on the U. N. Security Council.

The style of the speeches has changed, as has the tone. Earlier speeches were littered with quotes from sources like Christopher Columbus, Swami Vivekananda, Abraham Lincoln, Lala Lajpat Rai and the Rig Veda. Perhaps that was reflective of the style of speechwriting in those eras, but perhaps it was also because there were fewer concrete issues in the bilateral relationship to address. The evolution in the areas of cooperation is evident in the speeches. 

Rao’s speech about two decades ago, for instance, listed U.S.-India common interests as peacekeeping, environmental crises, and combating international terrorism and international narcotics trafficking. Compare that to Singh’s address which talked of cooperation on a range of issues from counterterrorism, the economy, agriculture, energy security, healthy policy, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), democracy promotion, and global governance.

The speech yet to come

Modi will likely strike some similar themes, acknowledging the role that the U.S. Congress has played in shaping the relationship and expressing gratitude for its support. Like Vajpayee, particularly in a U.S. election year, Modi might note the bipartisan support the relationship has enjoyed in recent years. He’ll undoubtedly talk about shared democratic values in America’s “temple of democracy”–a phrase he used for the Indian parliament when he first entered it after his 2014 election victory. Modi will not necessarily mention the concerns about human rights, trade and investment policies, non-proliferation or India’s Iran policy that have arisen on the Hill, but he will likely address them indirectly. 

For example, by emphasizing India’s pluralism and diversity and the protection its Constitution gives to minorities, or the constructive role the country could play regionally (he might give examples such as the recently inaugurated dam in Afghanistan). Given the issues on the bilateral agenda, he’ll likely mention the strategic convergence, his economic policy plans, terrorism, India’s non-proliferation record, defense and security cooperation, and perhaps–like Vajpayee–the Asia-Pacific (without directly mentioning China). And like Vajpayee, he might be more upfront about Indian concerns and the need to accommodate them. 

While he might strike some similar themes as his predecessors and highlight aspects of continuity, Modi will also want to emphasize that it’s not business as usual. He’ll likely try to outline the change that he has brought and wants to bring. In the past, he has noted the generational shift that he himself represents as the first Indian prime minister born after independence and the Modi government’s latest tag line is, of course, “Transforming India.” And he might emphasize that this changed India represents an opportunity for the U.S.

He won’t wade directly into American election issues, but might note the importance of U.S. global engagement. He might also try to address some of the angst in the U.S. about other countries taking advantage of it and being “takers.” He could do this by making 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, through its economic development it will contribute to global growth, and through Indian prosperity, security and a more proactive international role–with a different approach than another Asian country has taken–it’ll contribute to regional stability and order. He might also suggest ways that the U.S. can facilitate India playing such a role.

Unlike previous leaders, he has not tended to appeal to others not to ask India to do more regionally and globally because it’s just a developing country and needs to focus internally. The Modi government has been highlighting the contributions of India and Indians to global and regional peace and prosperity–through peacekeeping, the millions that fought in the World Wars, HADR operations in its neighborhood, evacuation operations in Yemen in which it rescued not just Indian citizens, but Americans as well.

His government has been more vocal in joint contexts of expressing its views on the importance of a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions–and we might hear more on this in his address. Overall, a theme will likely be that India is not just a “taker,” and will be a responsible, collaborative stakeholder.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the Indian prime minister notes the role that his predecessors have played in getting the relationship to this point. With some exceptions–for example, he acknowledged Manmohan Singh’s contribution during President Obama’s visit to India last year–he has not tended to do so. But there’s a case to be made for doing so–it can reassure members of Congress that the relationship transcends one person or party and is based on a strategic rationale, thus making it more sustainable. Such an acknowledgement could be in the context of noting that it’s not just Delhi and Washington that have built and are building this relationship, but the two countries’ states, private sectors, educational institutions and people. 

This wouldn’t prevent Modi from highlighting the heightened intensity of the last two years, particularly the progress in defense and security cooperation. (From a more political perspective, given that there has been criticism in some quarters of India-U.S. relations becoming closer, it can also serve as a reminder that the Congress party-led government followed a similar path).

Modi will be competing for media attention in the U.S. thanks to the focus in the U.S. on the Democratic primaries this week, but he’ll have Congressional attention. But it’s worth remembering that Indian prime ministers have been feted before, but if they don’t deliver on the promise of India and India-U.S. relations that they often outline, disillusionment sets in. Modi will have to convince them that India is a strategic bet worth making–one that will pay off.

This piece was originally published by Huffington Post India.