Narendra Modi‘s oratory skills have never been in doubt but while delivering an extempore speech addressing a joint session of US Congress at the Capitol Hill on Wednesday, the prime minister transcended the geographical boundaries of a head of state and appeared as a world leader, a global statesman and a man deeply aware of India’s and his own place in history.
And in doing so, he captivated with such élan an audience of hardened US lawmakers for a lengthy period of 47 minutes that his speech was interrupted by no less than 10 standing ovations and 69 rounds of vociferous, spontaneous applause.
Modi’s epochal speech will go down in history as one of his finest. He peppered it with quotable quotes, humour, wit, poetry and punchlines yet at the same time delivered a stern message to the US Congress that they must refrain from sponsoring terrorism.
In fact, the audacity with which he stood inside the House chamber and lectured the US Congress on their folly of “rewarding” India’s neighbour (no prizes for guessing the name of the country) who indulges in incubating terror was matched only by the applause that he received for his plain-speaking.
It was all very surreal.
“Distinguished members, not just in Afghanistan, but elsewhere in South Asia, and globally, terrorism remains the biggest threat.
“In the territory stretching from West of India’s border to Africa, it may go by different names, from Laskhar-e-Taiba, to Taliban to (Islamic State). But, it’s philosophy is common: Of hate, murder and violence,” said Modi.
“Although its shadow is spreading across the world, it is incubated in India’s neighbourhood. I commend the members of the US Congress for sending a clear message to those who preach and practice terrorism for political gains.
“Refusing to reward them is the first step towards holding them accountable for their actions,” said the prime minister, the first head of Indian state among five to articulate to the US lawmakers the deep consternation India suffers from when it finds US aid is being used by Pakistan to foment acts of terrorism against us.
Political scientist and assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program Dr C Christine Fair, author of the seminal book Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, has written extensively on how Pakistan continues to deceive the US into delivering billions of dollars of aid and military assistance while supporting terrorism and being an irresponsible nuclear weapons state.
She thinks Pakistan is able to do so because it perpetrates terror through varied proxies and uses “soft power” to cultivate American sympathies through “hospitality,” well-spoken lies and military tourism.
And this is exactly what Modi pointed out to the US Congress on Wednesday.
“The need of the hour is for us to deepen our security cooperation. And, base it on a policy that isolates those who harbour, support and sponsor terrorists; that does not distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists; and that delinks religion from terrorism.”
But it wasn’t all sermonising.
With impeccable sense of timing, Modi drew peals of laughter from the House chamber while joking that the US Congress was known for its “bipartisanship” and “harmony” in the backdrop of an acrimonious race to the White House between US Presidential nominees. It was one of several lighthearted moments that punctuated Modi’s address and it marked a clear shift in relationship between the two countries who are increasingly breaking new grounds while shedding mutual distrust of the past.
“Mr Speaker, I’m informed that the working of the US Congress is harmonious,” Modi said as the House chamber erupted in laughter. “I am also told that you are well-known for your bipartisanship.”
“Well, you are not alone,” he said while waving a finger.
“Time and again, I have also witnessed a similar spirit in the Indian Parliament, especially in our Upper House,” he said as the gathering burst into another round of cheer.
A part of Modi’s address to the joint session of US Congress was also meant for domestic consumption. He elaborated on his “long and ambitious to-do list” which he hopes to complete by 2022, the 75th anniversary of Independence.
” My dream is to economically empower them through many social and economic transformations,” he said, while laying out his plan: “A vibrant rural economy with robust farm sector; a roof over each head and electricity to all households; to skill millions of our youth; build 100 smart cities; have a broad band for a billion, and connect our villages to the digital world; and create a 21st Century rail, road and port infrastructure.
And mindful of his pulpit, he added a line which he knew the Americans would love to hear.
“These are not just aspirations; they are goals to be reached in a finite timeframe. And, to be achieved with a light carbon footprint, with greater emphasis on renewables.”
Expectedly, he received another standing ovation.
The concluding lines of his speech was a quote from a Walt Whitman poem To Think of Time (Canto 7).
“The orchestra have sufficiently tuned their instruments, the baton has given the signal”, to which he added a line: “And to that, if I might add, there is a new symphony in play.”
This was Modi at his eloquent best, an orator par excellence and a politician at the top of his game. America was owned.
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