Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday during which he pitched his country, the world’s largest democracy, as a special partner for the United States, the world’s oldest democracy.
Modi's speech largely glossed over areas of discord between the two countries, which include, on the U.S. side, frustration with the lack of significant progress by the prime minister in advancing the game-changing economic reforms he campaigned on more than two years ago.
“The threads of freedom and liberty form a strong bond between our two democracies,” Modi said, noting the two nations’ devotion to their respective constitutions and traditions of sending soldiers abroad to fight in “distant battlefields” in defense of democratic values.
“Our nations may have been shaped by differing histories, cultures and faiths. Yet our belief in democracy for our nations and liberty for our countrymen is common,” he said.
India's 14th prime minister emphasized the ways in which the two countries have influenced each other over the years, particularly Martin Luther King Jr.’s admiration and modeling of his own civil rights movement on Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolent civil disobedience.
The Indian leader did, however, gently urge U.S. lawmakers to support a new world order where the United States plays a less dominant role. He called for “cooperation not dominance … inclusive not exclusive mechanisms; and above all adherence to international rules and norms.”
Largely as a result of its experience under British colonialism, India has resisted participating in international accords that it views as unfair to developing countries.
Modi used this week’s Washington visit — his fourth since being elected — to declare that India would officially join the Paris climate change initiative by year’s end, making it all but certain the agreement will be in effect before the next U.S. administration. In the event that the next president would seek to withdraw the United States from the agreement, he or she would legally have to wait four years.
Modi , who wore a kurta along with a waistcoat that is sometimes known locally as the “Modi jacket,” touted his country’s trade relations with the United States, which he said was an “indispensable partner” in “every sector of India’s forward march.”
“Ties of commerce and investment are flourishing,” he said. “We trade more with the U.S. than with any other nation.”
U.S. opinions of the state of bilateral trade relations under Modi have soured somewhat from a high-note when he first took office in 2014. Some lawmakers such as Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., had hoped Modi would have made greater headway by now in pushing through parliamentary reforms to allow greater investment and trade with India.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., in a Tuesday op-ed for CNN said the need for deeper security ties with New Delhi did not mean other aspects of the bilateral relationship that were not working well should be overlooked.
However, Modi argued that U.S.-India cooperation would be made more effective if “international institutions framed with the mindset of the 20th century were to reflect the realities of today.”