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Exclusive: No Congressional Address for Indian Prime Minister

Exclusive: No Congressional Address for Indian Prime Minister

This post has been updated.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not address a joint session of Congress during his visit to the United States in September, his first since becoming the country’s leader, Foreign Policy has learned.

An invitation for the charismatic Indian politician to address the two chambers, viewed as the highest honor Congress can bestow on a foreign head of state, gained broad support in the House and Senate over the summer. However, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) informed Modi in a letter dated July 30 that the "unpredictability of the House schedule" meant that Congress could not invite the prime minister for this address after all. Boehner left the door open for a future address at an unspecified date. 

"I would be very interested in exploring with you the possibility of a visit to the United States Capitol and an address to a joint meeting of Congress should your travels bring you back to our country in the months and years ahead," read the letter, obtained by FP.

Many expected Modi to address Congress in the last week of September when he’s in the United States to meet President Barack Obama and address the United Nations General Assembly. But House leadership is contemplating calling an early recess in September ahead of midterm elections, which would mean lawmakers would be in their districts during Modi’s trip.

The proposed invite, endorsed in eight separate letters circulating in the House and Senate, was seen as an olive branch to India’s new leader and an attempt to repair relations after the U.S. revoked his visa in 2005. Then, critics blamed Modi for not stopping the slaughter of Muslims in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, where Modi served as chief minister. Modi was the only person ever denied a visa under an obscure provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act, an indignity that continues to breed resentment among Modi’s supporters in the United States.

Now, the scheduling conflict could be perceived as yet another slight by the U.S. government at a time of slumping U.S.-India relations.

"Since the expectation of a speech was made public … Indian and American policymakers are now going to have to manage the disappointment that results from it not materializing," Tanvi Madan, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Foreign Policy. "This’ll require making sure there’s an understanding in India — especially with the media and public — that this is not a sign of disrespect to India or Modi, but a result of the Congressional calendar, especially in a midterm year."

The decision has already rankled Democratic lawmakers who signed letters urging a Modi address to Congress.

"The last thing Congress needs is another vacation when there are pressing issues at stake, and that includes hearing from the leader of one of our most important, strategic allies," said Courtney Gidner, spokeswoman for Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans.

Update: The Hindu American Foundation, a large U.S.-based group that supports  stronger relations with Modi, reacted angrily to the news. "It’s a shame that some of our lawmakers may be prioritizing campaigning over a rare opportunity to demonstrate good will towards India and its newly elected prime minister," said Suhag Shukla, the group’s executive director. "The U.S. needs to demonstrate its will to build real bridges with the largest democracy in an efficient and effective manner."

The letter from Boehner appears below:

Modi Letter