Modi’s busy day in Washington, DC closes deals and opens doors

Ritu Jha (reporting from Washington, DC)–

The sky was cloudy and the weather was a cool 63 degrees with occasional bursts of rain, but the mood was festive and energetic in Washington DC on the morning of June 22 where thousands of Indians and Indian Americans had gathered to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his historic State visit to the United States.

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden formally welcomed PM Modi to the White House, and exchanged gifts, the beginning of a day of intense and long meetings. Later, Modi called the meetings “a commitment to our partnership” and “together we shall demonstrate democracy matters and democracies deliver.”

To welcome Modi, the Biden administration had not only decorated the capital’s streets with flags of the two countries, but the White House south lawn turned into a mini-India. The grand 45-minute celebration started with A-Cappella Penn Masala group humming Bollywood songs ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya (from ‘Dil Se) and ‘Jashn e Bahaaraa (from ‘Jodha Akbar’). The entire South Lawn of the White House was filled with thousands of Indian Americans chanting Modi’s name and ‘Vande Mataram’, India’s national song.

Modi was honored with a 21-gun salute and a marching band, followed by Biden’s speech. Biden said: “Together, India and the United States are working closely on everything from ending poverty and expanding access to healthcare to addressing climate change to tackling food and energy insecurity stoked by Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine.” He also lauded Vice President Kamala Harris and her mother who came to the US at age 19.

Modi dedicated his grand welcome ceremony at the White House to 1. 4 billion Indians and 4 million Indian Americans. “Today is an honor and pride for 1.4 billion people of India. This is also an honor for more than 4 million people of Indian origin living in the U.S. For this honor, I express my heartfelt gratitude to President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden.”

Mani Krishnan , founder of Shastha Foods, who flew in from California called it a momentous occasion. “Having seen eight US presidents during my life in the US and now witnessing the US recognize India’s role and Indian diaspora’s contribution, is historic. Kudos to Prime minister Modi and President Biden.”

Later in the day, Modi would receive a similar raucous welcome at the joint session of the US Congress where his speech witnessed 17 standing ovations from US Representatives and Senators.

At the White House joint press conference in the afternoon, both leaders were asked hard questions on human rights, including one on minorities and then on Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s statements against the Modi government. Sabrina from The Wall Street Journal asked: “I have a question for the Prime Minister. But first, a two-part question for you (President Biden): Your comments at a fundraiser this week appear to be the first time in recent memory that a sitting U.S. president has called a Chinese leader a dictator. Did those comments about President Xi undermine or complicate the progress your administration has made in maintaining a relationship with China? And secondly, on India: As you raise these broader issues of human rights and democracy, what is your message to those, including some members of your own party, who say that your administration is overlooking the targeting of religious minorities and crackdown on dissent in Prime Minister Modi’s country?

Biden replied: “The answer to your first question is: No. You know, what — when we’re talking to our allies and partners around the world, including India, we let the — the idea of my choosing and avoiding saying what I think is the facts with regard to the relationship with India — with China is — is just not something I’m going to change very much.

“I think we — I believe that — and I’ve said this for some time — that the hysteria about the relationship with China is collapsing and moving, et cetera, et cetera — we had an incident that caused some — some confusion, you might say. But President — but Secretary Blinken had a great trip to China. I expect to be meeting with President Xi sometime in the future, in the near term. And I don’t think it’s had any real consequence.

“Well, look, the Prime Minister and I had a good discussion about democratic values. And — and there is a — there is the — that’s the nature of our relationship: We’re straightforward with each other, and — and we respect each other.

“One of the fundamental reasons that I believe the U.S.-China relationship is not in the space it is with the U.S.- Indian relationship is that there’s an overwhelming respect for each other because we’re both democracies. And it’s a common democratic candida- — character of both our countries that — and our people — our diversity; our culture; our open, tolerant, robust debate.

“And I believe that we believe in the dignity of every citizen. And it is in America’s DNA and, I believe, in India’s DNA that the whole world — the whole world has a stake in our success, both of us, in maintaining our democracies. It makes us appealing partners and enables us to expand democratic institutions across — around the world. And I believe this, and I still believe this.

“One of the fundamental reasons that I believe the U.S.-China relationship is not in the space it is with the U.S.- Indian relationship is that there’s overwhelming respect for each other because we’re both democracies. And it’s a common democratic candida- — the character of both our countries that — and our people — our diversity; our culture; our open, tolerant, robust debate.

“And I believe that we believe in the dignity of every citizen. And it is in America’s DNA and, I believe, in India’s DNA that the whole world — the whole world has a stake in our success, both of us, in maintaining our democracies. It makes us appealing partners and enables us to expand democratic institutions across — around the world. And I believe this, and I still believe this.”

She then asked PM Modi: “Mr. Prime Minister, India has long prided itself as the world’s largest democracy, but there are many human rights groups who say that your government has discriminated against religious minorities and sought to silence its critics.  As you stand here in the East Room of the White House, where so many world leaders have made commitments to protecting democracy, what steps are you and your government willing to take to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities in your country and to uphold free speech?”

Modi responded: “I’m actually really surprised that people say so. And so, people don’t say it. Indeed, India is a democracy.

“And as President Biden also mentioned, India and America — both countries, democracy is in our DNA. Democracy is our spirit. Democracy runs in our veins. We live democracy. And our ancestors have actually put words to this concept, and that is in the form of our constitution.

“Our government has taken the basic principles of democracy. And on that basis, our constitution is made and the entire country runs on that — our constitution and government. We have always proved that democracy can deliver. And when I say deliver, this is regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender. There’s absolutely no space for discrimination.

“And when you talk of democracy, if there are no human values and there is no humanity, there are no human rights, then it’s not a democracy.

“And that is why, when you say “democracy” and you accept democracy and when we live democracy, then there is absolutely no space for discrimination. And that is why India believes in moving ahead with everybody with trust and with everybody’s efforts.

“These are our foundation principles, which are the basis of how we operate, how we live our lives. In India, the benefits that are provided by the government is accessible to all. Whoever deserves those benefits is available to everybody. And that is why, in India’s democratic values, there’s absolutely no discrimination neither on basis of caste, creed, or age, or any kind of geographic location.”

On climate change, Modi said, “For us, the environment is an article of faith. This is not just something that we need to do for convenience; we believe this. We do not believe in the exploitation of nature. In order for all of creation to work, we can make nature — but we cannot have exploitation of nature, and we have always believed this. And on the basis of these values, we are not only doing things for ourselves, but are taking some global initiatives, as well.”

As he was giving this answer, pro-Khalistani groups were seen protesting outside the White House.

Other journalists wanted to ask questions, but the two leaders left, as the Prime Minister was already delayed for this address to the joint session of Congress.

In his hour-long speech, Modi touched upon almost every subject, from praising five Indian American US Representatives saying, “I am told that the Samosa Caucus is now the flavor of the House. I hope it grows and brings full diversity of Indian cuisine here.” He stressed upon Democratic values, and said how the Quad alliance (US, Japan, Australia and India) has emerged as a major force of good for the (Indo-Pacific) region. He highlighted terrorism, and said more than two decades after 9/11and more than a decade after 26/11 in Mumbai, radicalism and terrorism still remain dangerous for the whole world.

Indian American Congressman Shri Thanedar, who was seen seated with Ro Khanna and Raja Krishnamoorthi, told Modi, “We are proud of you.” He spoke to Modi in both Gujarati and Marathi, and Thanedar said Modi replied in Marathi. “His speech was inspirational. He spoke very well. It touched on issues on Russia and China when he said how important it was for world peace and how it was important for US India to come together not only for economic benefit but for world peace and peace in the Pacific Ocean.”

Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Minister for External Affairs and Dr. S Jaishankar, were seated together, and were seen smiling when Modi said that India and the US are working together in space and seas in science and semiconductor in tech and trade. “When defense and aerospace in India grow industries in the states of Washington, Arizona, Georgia, Alabama, south Carolina and Pennsylvania thrive,” Modi said.

Venkatesh Shukla, Venture capitalist and former TiE SV president, who hosted Modi in 2015, shared his thoughts regardless of what people think about Modi. “The entire establishment across party lines is keen to have India in its corner,” Shukla said. “The rising economy is one the skilful diplomacy is another but strangely Ukraine war has made US realize the importance of India even more. Because Russia and China are closer, I think US realizes the importance of India.”

Talking on the GE jet engine announcement, Shukla felt, “the commercial side is happening on its own momentum. The private sector of the two countries and doing things on their pace and they don’t need government. But what is happening at the defense I think the GE jet engine shows that the US really wants to go al the way to get India to its corner. Today it’s hard not to notice the bipartisan nature of welcoming, and Indian prime minister as a guest and it will only go forward from here. It’s really a good time for the US-India relationship. I finally feel good about it,” Shukla said.

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