Prime Minister Modi Focuses on India’s Growth in Congressional Speech

Washington Post photo by Minh Connors
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on June 22, 2023.

While addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his country is “the mother of democracy,” comments that stood in contrast to his critics’ claims that India’s government has undermined democratic principles.

Lawmakers welcomed Modi to the House chamber warmly, giving him a loud standing ovation. Some in the gallery chanted his name as lawmakers lined up to shake his hand as he made his way toward the dais. The prime minister was escorted into the room by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).

Modi, in his remarks, celebrated the “bond between the world’s two great democracies” and noted that the United States has the “oldest” democracy, and India the “largest.”

“Together we shall give a better future to the world and a better world to the future,” Modi said, to applause from the chamber.

Human rights advocates and some Democratic lawmakers expressed concerns over Modi’s visit, given the allegations about his government’s treatment of religious minorities and his domestic critics. In his remarks, Modi insisted that India remains a welcoming place to “all faiths in the world,” and that, to him, democracy “is the idea that welcomes debate and discourse.”

Modi opened his remarks by noting that it was an “exceptional privilege” to speak to Congress again. He first delivered an address to a joint meeting of Congress in 2016. Flanked by Vice President Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Modi said “a lot has changed since I came here seven summers ago.”

“But a lot has remained the same, like our commitment to deepen the friendship between India and the United States,” he said.

While many members of Congress gave Modi a warm welcome, some House Democrats – including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Greg Casar of Texas, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Jamaal Bowman of New York – skipped the prime minister’s speech, citing his record on human rights.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), in a statement ahead of the joint meeting, said she would not attend the address and accused Modi of targeting and adopting laws that “explicitly discriminate against religious minorities,” including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Jews. Omar also said Modi’s government has targeted “dissidents, journalists, and their families.”

The boycott of Modi’s remarks wasn’t the only sign of protest among lawmakers over the Indian leader’s visit. Ahead of Modi’s arrival in the United States, more than 70 members of Congress urged President Biden to use his meeting with the Indian leader to address political violence, internet shutdowns, restrictions on press freedom and other “troubling signs” in the world’s largest democracy.

Modi visited Biden at the White House ahead of his speech to Congress. In remarks delivered in the East Room, the prime minister argued that India remains a democracy, and he said he was “surprised” to hear that some of his critics have raised concerns over attacks on religious liberty and freedom of speech.

His remarks to Congress focused on India’s economic and technological growth over the past decade. He did not address reports that India, under his watch, has increasingly resembled an autocracy in which religious minorities are under attack in the country.

A U.S. State Department report published in 2023 on religious liberty in the country found that religious minorities were regularly targeted in India during the previous year. The report detailed instances of law enforcement authorities participating in violent attacks against Muslims, as well as efforts in multiple states to arrest Christians.

A 2022 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found that conditions for religious minorities in India have taken “a drastic turn downward, with national and various state governments tolerating widespread harassment and violence against religious minorities.” The report found that Modi’s government is exposing millions of Muslims to “detention, deportation and statelessness” through its Citizenship Amendment Act, a law that fast-tracks citizenship only for non-Muslim immigrants. In a statement Tuesday, USCIRF Commissioner David Curry said India’s policies are “deeply concerning.”

Modi focused his remarks on India’s rise from 10th-largest economy in the world to fifth-largest. He talked about his country’s efforts to modernize the supply chain and participate in the development of emerging technologies, as well as the fight against climate change. Modi also noted that his country is celebrating 75 years of independence, a “special” milestone.

“After a thousand years of foreign rule in one form or another, [this] was not just a celebration of democracy, but also of diversity,” he said.

Modi’s visit is the second time the 118th Congress hosted a world leader for a joint meeting. In April, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol spoke to lawmakers.

During his first joint meeting before Congress, Modi in 2016 called for closer relations between the United States and India. At the time, the relationship between both countries was on the mend after years of tensions over diplomatic disagreements.

At the time, human rights groups expressed concerns about Modi’s treatment of religious minorities and his critics. Modi had, in fact, been barred from entering the United States for nearly a decade before that visit because of his failure to stop deadly riots in 2002 by Hindus against minority Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister.

Omar, in her statement Thursday announcing her decision to skip Modi’s speech, said lawmakers are now being told to “turn a blind eye to this repression because of foreign policy concerns – even though human rights are supposed to be at the center of our foreign policy.”