Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered his address to a joint session of Congress today. Afterwards, a White House dinner was held to celebrate his state visit, an honor reserved for the United States’ closest allies, which Biden has held only twice before, according to the New York Times.
The warm welcome was criticized by some like representatives Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who joined the petition signed by over 70 lawmakers that demanded President Joe Biden press Modi about the human rights violations under his leadership.
Notably, the other four Indian American congress members did not join Jayapal in signing the petition, likely to maintain good relations with India and the Indian American community, many of whom support Modi.
Though Modi rarely fields questions from journalists, he did so today at a joint news conference with Biden. When asked about the repression of Muslims, Modi denied the issue.
“Democracy is our spirit. Democracy runs in our veins. We live democracy,” said Modi of Indians. “In India’s democratic values, there’s absolutely no discrimination neither on basis of caste, creed, or age, or any kind of geographic location.”
However, protestors outside the White House gates decried Modi’s policies that have excluded Muslims from fast-track citizenship and failed to address violence by Hindu nationalists against minority groups. Political opposition and journalists have also been suppressed. This past March, Modi’s main political rival Rahul Gandhi was sentenced to two years in prison for making negative remarks about Modi’s name.
India is now the most populous country and the fifth largest economy in the world. The U.S. hopes to gain India’s allyship in opposing the Russian war in Ukraine and political threats from China, which it has so far been hesitant to do. In a bid to strengthen the relationship, Biden and Modi announced future partnerships for space exploration, business, and defense technology.
On the South Lawn today, Modi was celebrated with a marching band and a 21-gun salute as Biden addressed the crowd.
“I’ve long believed that the relationship between the United States and India will be one of the defining relationships of the 21st century,” said Biden. “Two proud nations whose love of freedom secured our independence, bound by the same words in our Constitution, the first three words, ‘we the people.’”
At the dinner, Modi made a humorous speech about the strengthening bond between the two countries. “We can pronounce each other’s names correctly. We can understand each other’s accent better,” he said. “Kids in India become Spider-Man on Halloween and America’s youth is dancing to the tune of ‘Naatu Naatu,’” a song in the Indian movie RRR.
Banquet guests included prominent figures such as M. Night Shyamalan, Ralph Lauren, Martin Luther King III, the CEOs of major tech companies, and both Democratic and Republican politicians. Entertainment for the evening was provided by violinist Joshua Bella, U.S. Marine Band Chamber Orchestra, and the University of Pennsylvania’s South Asian acapella group.
The guests were mostly served plant-based dishes, including portobello mushrooms and corn salad, out of respect for Modi’s vegetarian diet. Lotus and saffron flowers, important in Indian culture, decorated the pavilion.
In his dinner speech, Biden praised the contributions of Indian Americans. “We see it here at the White House where proud Americans of Indian heritage serve our country every day — including our vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris,” said Biden, turning to Harris who will eat lunch with Modi on Friday.