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Talking Defense Pacts and Yoga, Indian Prime Minister Charms Capitol Hill

In the last step of his political rehabilitation in the U.S., Narendra Modi stressed the ties between the world's two largest democracies.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes Vice President Joe Biden's hand after addressing a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on June 8, 2016, in Washington, DC.   / AFP / MOLLY RILEY        (Photo credit should read MOLLY RILEY/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes Vice President Joe Biden's hand after addressing a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on June 8, 2016, in Washington, DC. / AFP / MOLLY RILEY (Photo credit should read MOLLY RILEY/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes Vice President Joe Biden's hand after addressing a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on June 8, 2016, in Washington, DC. / AFP / MOLLY RILEY (Photo credit should read MOLLY RILEY/AFP/Getty Images)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dazzled a packed session of Congress on Wednesday in a speech drenched in American literary and cultural references -- and a couple of jokes that showed the leader of the world’s biggest democracy had a sharp sense of humor.

The roughly 45-minute address marked a major step in the rehabilitation of both Modi’s stature in the United States and of U.S.-India relations in general, which have suffered from years of distrust borne out of the Cold War. It also highlighted Washington’s increasingly close defense ties with New Delhi, which has stepped up its military cooperation with the U.S. and its arms purchases from American defense contractors in the wake of China’s growing footprint in the region.

It was just two years ago that Modi couldn’t even enter the United States after being censured for not doing more to stop the mass killing of Muslims during communal riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. And three years ago, U.S.-India relations dipped dramatically over the arrest and strip search of an Indian official in New York accused of exploiting her underpaid housekeeper.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dazzled a packed session of Congress on Wednesday in a speech drenched in American literary and cultural references — and a couple of jokes that showed the leader of the world’s biggest democracy had a sharp sense of humor.

The roughly 45-minute address marked a major step in the rehabilitation of both Modi’s stature in the United States and of U.S.-India relations in general, which have suffered from years of distrust borne out of the Cold War. It also highlighted Washington’s increasingly close defense ties with New Delhi, which has stepped up its military cooperation with the U.S. and its arms purchases from American defense contractors in the wake of China’s growing footprint in the region.

It was just two years ago that Modi couldn’t even enter the United States after being censured for not doing more to stop the mass killing of Muslims during communal riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. And three years ago, U.S.-India relations dipped dramatically over the arrest and strip search of an Indian official in New York accused of exploiting her underpaid housekeeper.

But a series of events have brought about a surprising turnaround for the two democracies, including a sharp deterioration in Washington’s ties with Pakistan — and a budding friendship between Modi and President Barack Obama.

Part of the so-called “bromance” between the two leaders stems from the amount of time they’ve spent with each other during Modi’s short tenure. When Obama visited India in 2015, Modi called him by his first name and expressed gratitude for his “deep personal commitment” to their friendship. On Tuesday, Modi called the president “my friend Obama.”

In his speech, Modi name-checked a handful of American political and philosophical leaders who have influenced Indians, including Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Henry David Thoreau. “Thoreau’s idea of civil disobedience influenced our political thoughts,” said Modi.

Amid multiple standing ovations, he also drew laughs with references to America’s love of yoga, practice by an estimated 30 million citizens, and the recent spate of Indian-American spelling bee champions.

“No Mr. Speaker, we have not yet claimed intellectual property right on yoga,” he said.

Modi also noted that the three million Indian-Americans in the United States are “among your best CEOs, academics, astronauts, scientists, economists, doctors; even spelling bee champions.”

The Indian leader’s visit hasn’t just been about jokes and friendly rhetoric. On Tuesday, he finalized the text of an agreement with Obama that will allow the American and Indian militaries to exchange crucial supplies and give India advanced military technology typically reserved for Washington’s closest allies.

India’s new openness to partner with the United States has been attributed to China’s growing military presence in the region — and aggressive moves like Beijing’s deployment of submarines in the Bay of Bengal.

In a nod to the growing military cooperation with Washington, Modi said that “India exercises with the United States more than we do with any other partner.”

“Defense purchases have moved from almost zero to ten billion dollars in less than a decade,” he added.

On his trip, Modi also said India would join the Paris climate agreement this year, a potentially historic move by the world’s fastest-growing producer of greenhouse gas and an important commitment for Obama, who is heavily invested in the far-reaching accord.

Modi’s standing in the U.S. has also benefitted from the growing tensions between Washington and Pakistan over Islamabad’s alleged harboring of leaders and fighters from both the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban — a dynamic many fault for prolonging the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

In an implicit reference to Pakistan, Modi emphasized the importance of isolating “those who harbour, support and sponsor terrorists.” He also noted that one can’t differentiate between “good and bad terrorists.”

He added that India supports the “shared objective” of rebuilding a “peaceful and stable and prosperous Afghanistan.”

He also noted that he and Obama agreed that India should become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council — a longstanding goal of New Delhi, which views the world body as woefully unrepresentative.

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