Modi tells US Congress: US-India ties primed for momentous future

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for deeper security ties between the US and India in a landmark speech before Congress on Wednesday, laying out a vision that included, for the first time, a prominent global role for India.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre) signs autographs after addressing a joint meeting of Congress.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre) signs autographs after addressing a joint meeting of Congress.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - In a landmark address before the US Congress on Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid tribute to the warm ties between the two countries, stressing that the relationship is “primed for a momentous future”.

“The constraints of the past are behind us and the foundations of the future are firmly in place,” he said.

“In the lines of the (poet) Walt Whitman, the orchestra has sufficiently tuned their instruments, the baton has given the signal and to that, if I might add, there is a new symphony in play.”

The Indian leader’s speech was largely celebratory, and he focused his comments on outlining the many values that the world’s largest and oldest democracies share. 

But he also appeared to make veiled references to criticisms from US lawmakers of human rights records in India, as well as India’s own concerns about the actions of China and Pakistan.

Mr Modi called for a stronger defence relationship between the US and India, citing especially the threat of terrorism and the need to preserve freedom of navigation on the seas. 

Without referring to any specific country, he told lawmakers that the two countries should isolate any country that harbours and supports terrorists.

“The fight against terrorism has to be fought at many levels and the traditional tools of military intelligence or diplomacy alone would not be able to win this fight. We have both lost civilians and soldiers combating it. The need of the hour is to deepen our security cooperation,” he said.

Adding that the lack of an agreed security architecture in Asia created insecurity, he said that US-India engagement could make a difference by “by promoting cooperation, not dominance, connectivity not isolation, inclusive not exclusive mechanisms, respect for global commons and for international rules and norms.”

Mr Modi said that India is already assuming responsibilities in securing the Indian Ocean and the two together could help ensure security of sea lanes and freedom of navigation from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.

In the days leading up to his address to Congress, some lawmakers had raised the issue of communal violence in India against Muslim and Christian minorities.

Mr Modi did not directly address those criticisms in his speech, but asserted strongly that his administration respects freedom of religion.

“For my government, the constitution is a 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.

"Eight hundred 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 - a freedom they exercise every moment of their lives,” he said.
 
Mr Modi received long-standing ovations before and after his address, and many points in his speech were punctuated with applause. The warm reception was noteworthy given how recently this same body had revoked his visa to enter the US, accusing him of not doing enough to stop race riots while chief minister of Gujarat.

Though largely serious, there were moments when Mr Modi, known for being a showman, turned on the charm. Near the start of his speech, he paused to give a round of applause to US soldiers who fought in World War II from the podium.

“I applaud, India applauds the great sacrifices of the men and women from the land of the free and the home of the brave in service of mankind,” he said.

The PM also made a few jokes.

Noting, that the popularity of yoga in the US, he said that “ India has not yet claimed intellectual property rights on yoga”.

Then, making reference to the bitter partisanship that has dogged the US Congress in recent years, Mr Modi said: “I'm informed that the working of the US Congress is harmonious.”

He added to laughter from the US lawmakers: “I'm also told that you are well known for your bipartisanship. Well, you are not alone. Time and again, I've also witnessed a similar spirit in the Indian parliament, especially in upper house.”