Addressing a sizeable gathering of Indian Americans, Modi also praised Sushma Swaraj for her “good governance” and listed the highlights of his tenure.
Washington: He started out a bit slow and was seemingly tired from his travels across time zones, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi soon got into the rhythm, showering Indian Americans with his government’s achievements and highlighting precisely the moves that would excite the crowd.
As expected, the mention of “surgical strikes” against Pakistan drew sustained applause from the 700-strong gathering at a suburban hotel. The event was no replay of the Madison Square Garden rally in 2014 when he addressed a crowd of thousands standing on a revolving stage but it was a sizeable showing of Indian Americans.
The decision to keep the crowd size small was conscious given the heightened anti-immigrant sentiment in the US since last year and his host’s sensitivities about crowd size and rallies.
US President Donald Trump has been in a long-running battle with the media about the number of people who attended his inauguration on January 20. He claims to have had the “largest” crowd even though photographic evidence shows otherwise.
Talking about “surgical strikes,” Modi told Indian Americans, “the world saw an example of our strength and no one questioned our actions or asked for an explanation except for those targeted”.
He ordered the strikes last September in retaliation for the attack by Pakistan-based militants at an Indian army base in Uri that killed 18 soldiers. “India lives by and respects the norms of international law but it also has the strength and ability to take action when required,” he added.
Many in the audience clapped and chanted “Bharat Mata ki jai,” trying to relive the moment of perceived superiority over a neighbour that has repeatedly sent terrorists across the border in a low-cost strategy against India.
Modi also took a swipe at western countries for not taking the terrorist threat seriously until they were victims themselves. “When 20 years ago India raised the issue of terrorism, they called it a “law and order” problem. Now the terrorists have explained it [to] them, and we don’t have to,” he said.
Modi listed the launch of multiple satellites by India, including a record-breaking 104 satellites in one go, and extolled the wonders of technology in making government function better as other highlights of his tenure.
The audience was charged even though many had waited in long lines for two or more hours to get into the secure ballroom. The logistics were nightmarish and the wait long. And for some inexplicable reason, the audience was arbitrarily divided into special and non-special invitees even though almost everyone was Indian American. A wry wit called this needless demarkation an example of the caste system – it was the Brahmins vs OBCs.
The surprise of Modi’s address was effusive praise for Sushma Swaraj, the external affairs minister and a former rival in the party, for coming to the rescue of stranded Indians all around the world, whether because of calamity, war or even a love affair gone wrong. He called her quick response time on Twitter an example of “good governance”.
Modi’s appearance at the community event was preceded by videos highlighting his government’s achievements at the three-year mark. Full of clever one-liners, the commentary was adulatory and the visuals pristine. One short film claimed that what India had failed to achieve in 68 years, it had done in the last three, dismissing even the gains of the previous BJP government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The prime minister arrived Saturday night (June 24) in Washington and spent Sunday morning (June 25) meeting CEOs of major US companies that have invested in India. He is scheduled to meet Trump at the White House on Monday and have dinner with the US president.
The two-day visit is expected to clarify the direction of the Indo-US relations. The White House has gone out of its way to raise hopes, calling India “a force for good” in the world. An announcement on the sale of surveillance drones worth more than $2 billion is expected during the visit depending on the ability of the White House to notify the US Congress in time as required by law.
Modi received a comprehensive briefing by senior Indian officials Sunday evening to prepare him for the much-anticipated meeting with Trump. Before he goes to the White House, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis will call on him at the Willard Hotel where the prime minister is staying. The hotel is a block away from the White House.
It was just as well that he addressed an adoring crowd a day before the crucial Trump meeting. As he said, the Indian community abroad gives him extra “energy” and he will need it for his first encounter with the famously unpredictable US president.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.