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.