Comparing and Rating Modi’s address to the US Congress

Resisted the impulse to react to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the joint Houses of the US Congress June 8, until now. It must be said though that it was a mostly dull speech full of banalities and stock sentiments (shared democratic values, etc) and is not worth the trouble analyzing. Except I am prompted by the sheer hyperbolic reception in Indian newspapers and media where reporters counted the standing ovations and applause not realizing that that this is normal polite thing that US legislators do when foreign leaders address them. But I am provoked into commenting by an entrenched member of what I have labelled the collaborationist school of foreign policy heading — what else — Carnegie India, who takes off on Modi’s lines to crow about the “strategic symphony” now supposedly existing in India-US relations.

Have been in the House gallery on Capitol Hill on two occasions in the past when Indian PMs addressed the joint Houses of the US legislature — the first time in 1984, June 13, when Rajiv Gandhi made quite a splash, and in 2000 when I was part of a small team headed by senior BJP leader, Professor ML Sondhi, that interacted with numerous US thinktanks within the Washington Beltway preparatory to the state visit by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which visit was topped off by his address September 14.

Objectively speaking, Rajiv’s address was absolutely scintillating and the best so far of any perorations before American legislators, including by his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru in October 1949. The secret of Rajiv’s success — besides his youthful good looks that proved an excellent foil for President Ronald Reagan’s practiced, almost cinematic, ease before cameras and the international media — was his speech drafted by then ambassador in Washington, K. Shankar Bajpai. This was important because Shankar Bajpai, who grew up in the city and was a student at the elite St. Albans School during the War years in the 1940s when his father, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai of the Indian Civil Service was Churchill’s Political Agent to President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, and tasked with arguing against granting immediate independence to India — something that FDR and many in his cabinet were pushing for — a job he carried out entirely to London’s satisfaction, and picked on precisely the sort of things Americans could instantly relate to. (Sir Girija’s success proved very early that in India’s “colonial” administrative system, bureaucrats survive even when elected governments don’t, because from being some one who opposed Indian freedom, he ended up in a free India in the Nehru era as MEA’s first Director-General!)

Anyway, the Shankar Bajpai-drafted speech was studded with stunning nuggets of information historically connecting India and the US. Thus, when Rajiv asserted that he wished Elihu Yale, instead of founding a college in New England had seeded an institution of higher learning in Madras, where he made his wealth as a senior East India Company official, and that Cornwallis instead of surrendering to US forces at Yorktown, had surrendered in Delhi, etc. he was greeted with knowing laughter and such deafening and prolonged and heart-felt bouts of applause and repeated standing ovations that no Indian PM has since been able to match. That was the high point of convivialty in relations manifested in the two urbane and sophisticated leaders — one young Indian, with Western sensibilities, the other a proven crowd pleaser. Rajiv’s address was a spectacular success and instantly turned around the public perception of India from a land reeking of poverty to a modern nation.

Narasimha Rao followed on May 18, 1994 and stood his ground, shrugging off India’s Cold War Soviet tilt saying roundly that “Being transient, term-bound representatives of our peoples, you and I have neither the time nor the need to review what we do not wish to repeat.” Vajpayee followed and famously called India and the US “natural allies”, in the process providing the strategic undergirding for better relations.

Manmohan Singh came and muttered unintelligibly in English on July 19, 2005.The US legislators dutifully stood up and applauded several times even as, by and large, they sat there scratching their heads. Remember, in this respect, that the host US president, George W.Bush, later confessed he couldn’t make head or tail of anything Manmohan Singh said in their numerous one-on-one conversations and claimed he would, ideally, have appreciated the services of an interpreter! It is hardly surprising therefore that Manmohan’s audience in the US Congress was generally left glassy-eyed.

Modi, of course, was far clearer, and made himself understood, which Manmohan could not easily manage to do. This is no small thing considering how hidebound and parochial most US law makers are. Modi’s speech was received correctly with the regulation standing ovations, etc., but no great enthusiasm. What stuck in any Indian nationalist’s throat was his expression of gratitude for what — Washington’standard reaction to any terrorist incident, in this case, the 26/11 strike by Pakistan-based terrorists on Mumbai? Recall, in contrast, the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2015 address to the US Congress — a no-nonsense speech where he didn’t plead for US understanding or help, merely explained his government’s harsh measures against the violence-prone Palestinians as proper and merited. The context was Obama Admin’s conspicuous cold-shouldering of Tel Aviv for its use of “excessive” force.

The other thing that stuck in my craw at least was his repeated positive references to the US sucking up Indian talent — praising US “innovation” that drew Indian “creativity”, etc. Modi made it sound as if this continuous decanting of prized intellectual resources from India to the US is a good thing, and something his government lays much store by and seeks to promote! In this respect it is best to remind ourselves to see how little the situation has changed from the time when Nehru in his address 67 years ago said: “I realise that self-help is the first condition of success for a nation, no less than for an individual. We are conscious that ours must be the primary effort and we shall seek succour from none to escape from any part of our own responsibility. But though our economic potential is great, its conversion into finished wealth will need much mechanical and technological aid.”

It is sobering and shameful to see India still seeking technological help from the US. What’s worse is Modi taking pride in the country losing its prized youthful engineering, scientific, and managerial talent to America simply because the bureaucratized Indian government over the decades monopolizing the fields of education, industry, and skilling has made such a mess of everything that young Indians are desperate to get the hell out of the country to make their futures anywhere abroad. And Modi, far from minimizing the role of government, has persisted with it, compounding the problems for the country and ensuring India is stuck in a morass of the government’s making.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, Culture, domestic politics, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian democracy, Indian Politics, Israel, Pakistan, society, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, Terrorism, United States, US.. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Comparing and Rating Modi’s address to the US Congress

  1. Brijesh says:

    I agree whole heartedly with the last sentence of the post, namely- And Modi, far from minimizing the role of government, has persisted with it, compounding the problems for the country and ensuring India is stuck in a morass of the government’s making. How I wish that he starts acting on the promise of minimum government!
    It seems that Mr Modi knows what is to be done but lacks the courage to act.

    • Brijesh, Modi will realize soon both shrewd America and cunning China play India Card against each other. India is meek,timid and naive. Moreover never mix ahimsa with defense. Best, Jose, Kerala.

  2. Enron cheated us. Yes. But it is no more. Coca-Cola played dirty tricks against India. But India will get the upper hand. India has the capability to ride over terrorism, disasters or even prolonged war. See American shame on 9/11 and Indian glory on 12/13.
    India is more liberal than USA. American liberalism often stop by their borders. Will America tolerate a Cuban sponsored attack on their Capitol Hill as India did on December 13? I doubt it. To American’s credit, there weren’t widespread slaughter of innocents after 9/11 as India witnessed in 1984 and 2002. But America has her 1992 Los Angeles race riots. Against our three-year long Emergency, America has Edgar Hoover’s three-decade long dictatorship. America bring high profile Sikh killer to speedy trial.
    After the 9/11 terrorist strike, Americans mostly ignored our unconditional support and goodwill. Cunning Pak General played his cards shrewdly. I have another suggestion. Smaller democracies, Australia, Italy and Holland are facing international terror. We should lend them security experts. They will be grateful. Also India’s clout and global stature will raise.

  3. America ditched Taiwan for oppressive China in 1971. If US – Chinese relations improve, India will be hanged out to dry. In The Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, US sent 7th fleet against us. UK, China encircled us. Russians saved us.

  4. Let me blunt. China can ICBM/nuke White House. India can’t. Chinese said to our Gen Sundarji ” The weak(India) will talk, the strong(China) will act.

  5. MS says:

    I like it the way you relate to matters of defence-strategic and tactical/operational, and the national pride.

    I have also seen more men who relate in the same way about the national pride, and Nehru’s quote says the same thing about Nehru. If we are the best, then we will relate similarly with the pride of Nehru.

    Your first line of the last para sums it all and also should give direction. Neither we nor will any other country get technology by just singing songs of new found freindship or chemistry, I believe, though this too is very important. It could create a conducive atmosphere but we have to stand up and lure the technology companies to our big market through policies like that of china-take business but transfer the technology.

    Modi, I think, would made much more progress with Bush though. Bush showed the body language of a leader who could press hard-to-press levers. But, would it matter what the speech was? It is how we could leverage our vast demand with the technology transfer from the providers, will determine our success.

    China will be wary only a little as we are yet to ask emphatically for technology in return for business. We are pleading…

    Mr Modi is our best bet, I hope he makes it happen the China way atleast for the first some years.

  6. There was a time. In 1986- 1987, Rajiv Gandhi, General Sundarji and Arun Singh tested warming Soviet – China ties. China and America warned India another 1962 like painful, shameful lesson. Weak, meek Gorbachev advised India to show the other cheek. After tense stand off, China backed off. Above mentioned hawks didn’t, blink. Show of strength saved the day in favor of the Indians. Best Joseph, Kerala.

  7. Puneet Raina says:

    Elihu Yale (East India Employee, President Fort Saint George) not Elihu Root (Secretary of State, amongst other attainments viz Nobel)

  8. Jay Joshi says:

    Excellent and a very insightful article, and the argument put forth is ‘Food for Thought’. We, Indians, must surely start acting with attitude to make ourselves a centre of gravity and influence, rather than sticking to an age old urge on how the world sees us, and keep running to the West.

    Israel is a rare example. By our ancient values, we are not a Nation of force and atrocities. But we have to build a strong, proactive, defensively aggressive India and to be in a position where the World is voluntarily forced to recognize it rather than approaching other countries with appeals or by begging.

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