The 45-minute speech by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the joint session of the US Congress, acknowledged with 10 standing ovations and 69 rounds of applause, is one of his best so far.
This will go down in history with the Wembleys and Madison Square Gardens. It also tells us why Modi is one of the finest orators India has ever seen and an expert PR strategist. The prime minister has evolved his own method of conquering an international audience despite his perceived imperfections in the use of the English language.
The best way to win the confidence of your audience, particularly in a foreign soil, is to praise them. Praise them abundantly and do so again and again, till they fall flat on your feet. Commend their success and the good things they have done in the past for us. Keep mum on the perils and pain they have inflicted on us. Hence, Modi has done well by praising the US as a great democracy that has stood with India during the needy hours and pretending to ignore how the US has covertly funded terrorism in the region, particularly in Pakistan, that has always found its way across the border to Indian army posts and terrorist camps. It’s statesmanship.
Modi’s 45-minute speech was a success.
It touched upon a range of critical issues of bilateral cooperation between the world’s ‘largest and oldest democracies’ in the areas of energy security, terrorism, climate change and on the need to revamp international institutions (read as the UN) to meet the needs of present-day society situations. The hardened audience of the US Congress, including the US vice-president Joe Biden, responded to every word Modi spoke and acknowledged the prime minister’s observations with standing ovations and prolonged applauses — a feast for our eyes.
The attention Modi commands internationally, especially in the US where his bromance with his ‘friend Barack’ is now part of the local folklore, will make every Indian excited. That is especially so when one compares the prime minister with some of his predecessors who were men of few words and relatively low profiles. It doesn’t appear to make any difference to Modi whether he is speaking to the elite, hardened politicians of US Congress or an NRI crowd in Wembley. He does it the same way as he addresses a political rally in Patna. Also, it doesn’t bother him that the same country treated him as an outcast a few years ago and denied him entry.
Time heals everything.
“For my government, the Constitution is its real holy book. And, in that holy book, freedom of faith, speech and franchise, and equality of all citizens, regardless of background, are enshrined as fundamental rights," Modi said.
Back home, this statement from Modi would have caught one group of filmmakers by surprise and a few dead souls turn in their graves, for they lost their lives for the same words of which Modi spoke — freedom of faith and speech.
As Modi spoke, a section of filmmakers were fighting for the same ideals of freedom of speech and art. On Wednesday, a group of film industry workers led by director, Anurag Kashyap, said they will fight in court against the decision of Censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani, in order to exhibit the film UdtaPunjab, the theme of which is the drug menace and lawlessness in Punjab. The artists said this was an attack on their freedom on creativity.
A review committee under Nihalani, who is proud to call himself a ‘Modi Bhakt’ or ‘Modi chamcha’ has asked the makers of the film to remove the word Punjab from the dialogues, acknowledge that the Modi government is fighting the drug menace in the state and cutting close-up scenes of characters in the film injecting drugs into their body. In all, there are 89 cuts the Censor board has ordered in the film, stating that the film maligns the name of the state of Punjab. Surely, Kashyap would not be too amused to hear about the freedom of expression part in Modi’s speech.
Neither would the souls of three liberal, rational writers/thinkers, MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar who were killed in the recent years. Left-wing politician and writer Pansare was shot on 16 February, 2015 in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, while Dabholkar was murdered on 20 August, 2013, in Pune. Kalburgi, a Kannada writer, was shot dead on 30 August, 2015, in Dharwad district in Karnataka. Last year, another Kannada writer, KS Bhagawan too received death threats from a right-wing group that threatened him for his controversial comments on the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Instances of religious hostility (including the beef-killings) and frequent attacks on freedom of expression have indeed cast a shadow on the same values and ideals of which Modi spoke in the US Congress and the ten standing ovations and 69 rounds of applause do not seem to erase the ignominy on India’s civil society by a series of such incidents.
The very fact that the Central Bureau of Investigation suspects a link between the killings of three liberal thinkers, show that there is indeed reason for concern or concluding that such incidents are not mere coincidence.
Modi’s stance on the freedom of expression and faith is challenged in the US itself.
Recently, a Congress-mandated US Commission for International Religious Freedom's annual report had claimed that in 2015 India was on a "negative trajectory" as far as religious freedom is concerned. Religious tolerance "deteriorated" and religious freedom violations "increased", the report noted. Recently, US senator Ben Cardin, who is also on the Senate’s foreign relations committee, had attacked Modi ahead of the latter’s US visit saying India still needs to address issues of extrajudicial killings, human rights, religious intolerance, forced labour and human trafficking.
The prime minister has indeed pulled off another massively successful performance, this time in the ‘temple’ of the world’s oldest democracy. The respect and attention Modi has commanded will make every Indian feel proud and will benefit the country if the promises on the $45 billion in investment and commitments on civil nuclear cooperation translate to action and the US aids India’s claim to a stronger position in the UN.
But, the veracity of Modi’s claims on freedom of faith, speech and franchise that he ascribed to the ‘holy book’ will be questioned back home.