Narendra Modi’s speech at the Joint Meeting of Congress garnered a mixed response, with some Members of Congress losing their attention and mechanically clapping through the one-hour-long political spectacle. To make a stand on the issue of human rights and democracy, House Democrats Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Kweisi Mfume, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez boycotted the speech of the Indian leader.

In person, Narendra Modi exuded a certain aura, emitting a gentle demeanor as he spoke softly and deliberately. However, the House chamber quickly transformed into a boisterous spectacle, echoing with chants of “Modi, Modi, Modi.”

It felt akin to attending a Trump rally, although Modi’s style markedly differed from the former “America First” president, characterized by a less aggressive approach.

World leaders like Modi, unlike Trump ever did, understand lip service.

Ksenija Pavlovic McAteer

The House chamber atmosphere was turning quickly  into a sports stadium as Indian-Americans standing in the galleries and other guests used the historic moment to show their support for Modi.

Speak softly and carry a thunderous applause is Modi’s mantra.

While Prime Minister Modi appeared to check off the right boxes in his speech on paper, discussing themes such as democracy, unity, climate, yoga, and even poetry, it seemed almost as if he had strategically borrowed straight from the liberal playbook.

World leaders like Modi, unlike Trump ever did, understand lip service. What Modi really thinks journalists cannot question him directly about as India’s leader does not do regular interviews. Offhand questions from reporters are not something he entertains, and yet, he was about to deliver a grandiose ode to democracy in the House of Represenatives, a self-congratulatory speech in front of American legislators , the press, domestic, and foreign.

Modi commenced his speech on the House floor by expressing his gratitude for the opportunity to address the US Congress, stating, “It is a great honor.” He acknowledged the presence of those who had been there in 2016, remarking, “Nearly half of you were here.” Modi further noted the enthusiasm surrounding the new friendship, stating, “I can see the enthusiasm of a new friendship in the other half.” He declared that “our era is at a crossroads” and proceeded to discuss the “callings for this century.”

Joint Meeting of Congress with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi [Photo: Courtesy of the Speaker’s Press Office]

“Being a citizen of a vibrant democracy myself, I can admit one thing Mister Speaker – you have a tough job! I can relate to the battles of passion, persuasion and policy,” noted Modi.

“I can understand the debate of ideas and ideology. But I am delighted to see you come together today, to celebrate the bond between world’s two great democracies – India and the United States. I am happy to help out whenever you need a strong bipartisan consensus. There will be – and there must be – a contest of ideas at home. But, we must also come together as one when we speak for our nation. And, you have shown that you can do it,” Modi gave his assessment of American democracy.

“Today, the world wants to know more and more about India. I see that curiosity in this House too. We were honoured to receive over hundred Members of the US Congress in India over the last decade. Everyone wants to understand India’s development, democracy and diversity. Everyone wants to know what India is doing right and how,” Modi marketed his country on the American podium.

While in his speech Modi has not explicitly called China by its name, he espoused the US position by affirming, “The dark clouds of coercion and confrontation are casting their shadow in the Indo-Pacific. India’s PM said, “The stability of the region has become one of the central concerns of our partnership. We share a vision of a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific.”

The geopolitical challenge with China and Russia is the key reason Modi has been given such a prominent platform by the Biden administration. The American government wants India on its side, a stance that policy experts on India-US relations find “misplaced” on Biden’s part. The US President wants Modi to take a stance against Russia, but so far, he has been unsuccessful in doing so. It’s difficult to envision what it would take for India to abandon its neutrality towards Russia, as it also depends on what India would gain from the US in return.

Modi seems to be a leader who has mastered the American way of diplomatic demeanor, even going through the motions of standing on the same stage at the joint press conference with Biden. When queried about the human rights situation in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi vehemently defended his nation’s track record and his own government’s commitment to democracy and human rights. “Democracy is in our DNA,” said Modi in the East Room.

But then, there was poetry, too. In the closing moments of his speech on the House floor, PM Modi turned to a poem by American poet Amanda Gorman, stating, “When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.”

Recognizing the diverse backgrounds and histories between India and America, Modi emphasized the shared vision and destiny that unites them. Underlining the significance of the US-India relationship, he proclaimed, “It is primed for a momentous future.” Modi concluded his address by asserting, “That future is today,” in his own words, “The sun has just risen.”

The gallery erupted in a final chant for PM Modi, proclaiming, “Victory to Mother India!” As the session concluded, several members departed the chamber, while others approached Modi on the House floor, engaging in discussions and capturing photographs. Vice President Harris and Speaker McCarthy remained present, while Leader Jeffries was among the first ones to exit the chamber.

While everyone did their song and a dance, the reality proves rather unconvincing. Does it even matter? Indian-Americans, an influential voting bloc, will hold a significant sway in the upcoming election. And yes, in this global theater of politics every player has assumed their designated part. In a self-indulgent oration, Narendra Modi has inscribed his name into the annals of history. The eager audience, erupted in thunderous applause.

The facade remains unblemished on the Western front.

Ksenija Pavlovic is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Pavlovic Today, The Chief White House Correspondent. Pavlovic was a Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Fellow in the Political Science department at...

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