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Modi's Historic Address - An Inside View
Sashi Reddi
Investor & Founder-SRI Capital
Monday, July 11, 2016
I had the good fortune to be invited by my local senator to attend Prime Minister Modi's address to the joint session of the United States Congress. This is only the fifth time that an Indian leader has been invited to do such an address, so it has great historical significance. Given that many of you would have read about Modi's speech, or even seen it, let me share things that you may not have seen on TV.

Every senator and congressman in the US gets one ticket that they can give someone in their state/constituency they represent to attend such an important event. Needless to say, every one of those tickets was lobbied for by Indian Americans like myself. So the first thing I noticed when I entered the chamber was that it was a gathering of around 500 very successful Indians gathered to witness this event. I thought I saw a couple of billionaires as they hobnobbed between themselves.

Many of the Indian guests came decked out to show their affinity to India. There were some men who wore tricolor ties, many had Indian and US pins on their suits, and a few also wore a traditional Indian dress. The women were decked out in jewelry as well as beautiful dresses-all of which created some havoc during security screening. There were perhaps 2-3 lucky Indian American kids who had flown in just for the event. Naturally, the other kids there were the Spelling Bee kids that were also shown on TV.

The chamber itself is actually quite small so you get to see all of these famous people quite clearly. I recognized possibly a dozen or so senators and Congressmen as well as cabinet members and naturally Vice President Biden and Speaker Paul Ryan. I was disappointed that President Obama did not attend, which I assume is protocol for this event. Besides Modi's speech, the highlight of the event is just seeing the process of various people entering the chamber. One does not realize on TV but there are 4-5 people seated at the base of the podium. These are not any famous dignitaries so I was not quite sure what their role in these ceremonious events is.

The media is treated as an important group of attendees and their placement seems to be done very carefully. The folks who are photographers are given a prime spot directly opposite the podium but in the visitors' gallery at the top. So the first row in front of me were around 6-8 photographers, of which, around 2-3 seemed to be from the Indian media. The journalists/writers were also at the visitors' gallery level but right behind the podium. So they can hear the proceedings but would not be able to see the actual delivery of the speech.

One cannot take a cell phone inside the chamber. You need to check in your phone outside the hall and you can pick it up on the way out. So in spite of attending a grand historic event, there was no opportunity for selfies or any photos. In fact, one is not allowed to take photos in most parts of the Capitol building though that rule did not seem to be enforced as strictly.

Modi's speech was well received by the Congress, especially his insider jokes about the "harmonious" functioning of the house. His valiant attempt to make this a historic occasion to capture the significance of the US-India relationship, received multiple standing ovations. However, this was not reflected in the coverage by mainstream media. NYT, WSJ, and pretty much most other papers just had a small article way down the front page. Everyone continues to be riveted by Trump's latest antics. No one seems to care about something that Indians and Indian Americans care deeply about.

Each of the Congressmen seemed to have a printed version of the speech with them since they were following along not only by what Modi was saying but also by reading the paper with them. So though the PM's speech was clear and reasonably easy to understand for me, the printed copy must have definitely helped many of the American audience to follow along. It was interesting how there seemed to be a coordinated effort at standing ovations, almost as if there was some note in the printed speech that told them to react. Similarly, when a point was made about climate change and action, only the Democrats stood up but the Republicans did not. Also, the mention of Martin Luther King's name brought all the African Americans to their feet.

Clearly, Indian Americans have become an important donor base to politicians of both parties. When Modi acknowledged the achievements of Indians in the US, many of the Congressmen made it a point to turn around and acknowledge those of us in the visitor gallery. This happened 3-4 times during the event so it was interesting to see such a direct acknowledgement from the politicians.

Overall, I came away with an impression that Modi did India proud. He was confident, hit all the right notes that matter to US lawmakers, pushed India's message as a responsible global power, and plugged India's soft power through "yoga" and "spelling bee" champs. Not only did he reference great Indian leaders, he mentioned great American figures, and tied India's history with that of the US. It was an artful performance that will be remembered by those who care about such things. The rest of us will stay glued to see who Trump insults next.
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