The United States Capitol is getting a fresh coat of paint. It houses the United States House of Representatives and the Senate, and on Wednesday, the US Congress also whitewashed its prior prohibition of a certain former chief minister of Gujarat from American territory.
Eleven years earlier, as everyone is aware, Narendra Modi found America’s doors barred as he sought a visa to visit New York (where a public reception was scheduled at Madison Square Garden) and Florida (where Gujarati moteliers awaited him). That decision by the George W Bush administration was predicated on legislation enacted by the US Congress in 1998.
Addressing the Congress, therefore, was of symbolic substance for the peripatetic Prime Minister. He expected to do so in September 2014, but found the doors to Congress shut again since that trip was far too close for comfort for members of Congress facing re-election in about six weeks. Schedulers got their time-table synced with Congressional preferences this summer.
How America is singing a different tune these days. Modi quoted American poet Walt Whitman to his audience in Congress, “The orchestra have sufficiently tuned their instruments, the baton has given the signal. And there is a new symphony in play.” Curiously, the next line in that reads: “The guest that was coming — he waited long, for reasons — he is now housed.” His host Speaker Paul Ryan, a heavy metal fan, he has done most of his recent headbanging with his party’s presumptive nominee for president, Donald Trump.
The rounds of applause that greeted Modi may have been music to his ears. Getting acquainted with members of the foreign relations committees of the two chambers was a fitting coda.
Modi has spent more time in the United States than any other previous Indian prime minister, and his fourth Stateside sally may appear much of a muchness except that this one came with substance. It isn’t surprising that US President Barack Obama invited him back to the Beltway since in a foreign policy landscape that’s marked with disaster areas, India strikes the right chord.
Entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime, support for joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group, finalisation of the text of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement make for an appetising menu at a working lunch.
But now the Modi government will have to adapt to political climate change in Washington. If Democrat Hillary Clinton is the next occupant of the Oval Office, there may be continuity, even though that isn’t exactly free of concern. Her administering of the payouts to Pakistan as Secretary of State included the $ 7.5 billion package that was piloted by then Senator and later her successor at Foggy Bottom, John Kerry. Across the aisle, in Trump World, there is no India policy. In fact, recently one of his surrogates, California Congressman Duncan Hunter admitted as much; that at this time, Trump’s ‘America first and foremost’ is just about the only line that’s been scrawled.
The slate that India may have to deal with, therefore, will either be bleak or blank. That’s where this overture to the US Congress sounds the right note. Modi acknowledged the Congress’ role in recent years in blocking the Obama administration’s aid to Pakistan.
Before the visit commenced, India’s foreign secretary S Jaishankar spoke about how Congress was at the “heart” of the bilateral relationship. Having served in Washington as ambassador, he knows that it’s the organ that keeps on beating even after administrations have expired. Members of Congress don’t suffer from term limits like a president does. In fact, one has had his pew for over 50 years, five others have served for more than four decades. The Congress, in one sense, is America’s permanent establishment, like the bureaucracy in India. Regime change rarely challenges it other than transferring control of one chamber or the other between the two parties. There is institutional memory. Modi will certainly hope he has left them with something to remember him by. How the “new symphony” will play out, though, remains for the ears ahead.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal