The last two Prime Ministers of India – the world’s largest democracy – have had the opportunity to speak before the world’s oldest republic. Now House Republicans, keen to start the election season, are threatening the chance that India’s new leader gets that same opportunity.
After accepting President Barack Obama’s invitation to visit the United States in September, 83 members of Congress invited newly-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to speak before a joint session of Congress. In the letter written to Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), those Members rightly noted that opportunity for the sitting Indian Prime Minister to speak before Congress is a decades-old tradition. In a number of congressional hearings, leading governmental and non-governmental voices have also called for Congress to welcome PM Modi to formally address a joint session, including the Center for American Progress’ Vikram Singh.
However, House Republicans are eager to kick-off election campaigning and the six-week recess before November mid-term elections. In the interest of getting its members back into their districts to politick all the sooner, the House’s leadership may push to end the legislative session on September 19th, instead of October 2nd, according to a report from the Hindustan Times. Neither Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) nor his office responded to messages seeking clarity on the end date of the legislative session. This truncated schedule will make any address by Prime Minister Modi, who plans on visiting Washington in late September, before Congress impossible.
By potentially denying Modi an opportunity to highlight the importance of the relationship, House Republicans are placing campaign priorities ahead of their duty to facilitate global partnerships. After refusing to grant Modi a visa in 2005 and allegedly spying on his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the United States would be wise to warmly receive Prime Minister Modi and not exacerbate ill-feelings.
Despite making significant breakthroughs on major issues like defense and civil nuclear ties, the U.S.-India strategic partnership agreements have been accompanied by serious obstacles and lack measurable progress, such as setbacks in the civil-nuclear deal due to disagreements over the liability that nuclear companies would be required to take on under Indian law. Setting the right tone with Prime Minister Modi, who won a historic election in May, will be crucial for, in President Obama’s words, “the century’s defining partnership.”
In a speech given at the Center for American Progress last Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry praised Prime Minister Modi for his vision for India and highlighted the election as a “potentially transformative moment in our partnership with India,” and noted that the mutual relationship is needed to solve some of world’s greatest challenges.” Kerry, who was in India this past week attending the 5th annual U.S.-Indian Strategic Dialogue, emphasized the U.S.’ and India’s shared vision on issues ranging from clean energy to homeland security.
For the United States, this partnership means more than just several thousand jobs and billions of dollars in trade and defense contracts. It’s a relationship with a rising, global power – a partner who can promote democratic values, counter global threats like terrorism and climate change, and hedge Chinese geopolitical dominance in Asia. Uniting the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy is a crucial piece in the United States’ foreign policy rebalance and is a relationship that should not only be prioritized, but should also be bipartisan.
Members from all sides of the aisle have emphasized the importance of the relationship. A long proponent of strong bilateral ties with India, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) stressed that we should “resist the domestic forces that would turn our strategic relationship into a transactional one…[or risk] fall[ing] far short of our potential, as we have before.” While some members of Congress have taken a positive step towards strengthening Indo-American relations, some have, quite frankly, showcased exactly why legislators need greater exposure to our strategic partner. Hopefully Prime Minister Modi will get the opportunity to do just that in September.
Parag Dharmavarapu is an intern with the Center for American Progress' National Security and International Policy team.