It is the ultimate tale of redemption, fit for a Hollywood movie. A man banned from a country by that nation’s legislature will now address the same legislature by special invitation. How much bigger can it get? A lot, actually.
When the US Congress banned Narendra Modi from entering the US in 2005 — due to allegations that he was involved in the 2002 Gujarat riots — no one thought that just nine years later, he would actually be invited to the White House. And that within a span of less than two years, he will undertake four visits to the land of the free and the home of the brave. But that’s exactly what happened. And on his fourth visit to the US, he will actually address the US Congress, at the invitation of Speaker Ryan Paul, who belongs to the Republican party, whose George W Bush was the US President when the ban was enacted.
Relations between Modi and the US began improving after he was elected India’s prime minister in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. PM Modi visited US for the first time in September 2014. The diaspora went into a frenzy — remember the rally at New York’s famed Madison Square Garden? It was such a pompous affair that even Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver couldn’t help commenting on it. US President Barack Obama, a Democrat, realised that it was not a good idea to alienate the world’s largest democracy. And then the patch up began.
Obama visited India in 2016 and was the chief guest at the Republic Day parade. PM Modi, in turn, has visited US three times and this trip will be his fourth one. He has wooed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in California and hosted Apple CEO Tim Cook in New Delhi. He is paving the way for Walmart and Apple to come to India; he has authorised the purchase of more arms and ammunition from the US, and according to Bloomberg, India’s defence purchases from the US has surpassed those from traditional ally Russia. US, on its part, is backing India’s application to become a member of the NSG. The fact that both countries are united against China’s aggression in the South China Sea has only strengthened the bond. It also helped that the US’ plan to sell F-16s to Pakistan also fell through.
It is expected that the two leaders will finalise a defence logistics agreement and arrive at a solution on the nuclear liability law during Modi’s visit.
Of course it has not always been an easy ride. While the US Congress may have warmed up to Modi, enough to invite him to address the legislature, it hasn’t stopped them from airing their concerns about India.
As recently as last week, US politicians criticised India for its human rights record.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which examined ties between the world's two largest democracies in advance of Modi's address to Congress, noted that some in Congress expressed unease about India's ties with Iran, after Modi visited Tehran and agreed to invest $500 million to develop a strategic port in Iran.
Committee Chairman Bob Corker said it was essential that the US and India stand together to uphold democratic values and norms in the Indo-Pacific region as China seeks to gain greater influence, but expressed his shock about the number of slaves in India.
"How does a country like this have 12 to 14 million slaves in the year 2016. How does that happen?" Corker asked.
Democratic Senator Tim Kaine raised India's decision to refuse visas in March to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which issues an annual, global report. India's position is that the commission, which provides policy advice to Congress and the US executive, does not have the legal standing to pass judgment on conditions in the country.
Kaine said India's status as a secular democracy could only be sustained, "if people don't feel like they are going to be preferred or punished for how they choose to worship".
Against these criticisms, Modi’s address to the Congress assumes even more significance. What he says will definitely be debated in the hallways of Capitol Hill and will decide whether India-US relations will continue to be as strong as it is now once the new US president is elected in November.
With inputs from agencies