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Indian leader touts US relations in Congress speech
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday touted cultural and economic ties with the United States in an address to a joint session of Congress - a sharp turnaround from a decade ago, when he was blacklisted from entering the country.
Modi highlighted the contributions of Americans descended from Indian immigrants.
"Connecting our two nations is also a unique and dynamic bridge of 3 million Indian-Americans. Today, they are among your best CEOs, academics, astronauts, scientists, economists, doctors, even spelling bee champions," Modi said.
"They are your strength. They are also the pride of India. They symbolize the best of both our societies."
Modi is the fifth Indian leader to address Congress and the first to do so since Manmohan Singh in 2005.
A decade ago, Modi was not even allowed to enter to the United States.
President George W. Bush's administration revoked Modi's tourist visa in 2005 as retaliation for the Indian leader's failure to rein in violence against Muslims while serving as the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. The visa denial came around the time Modi was planning to travel to New York to address Indian-Americans at a rally in Madison Square Garden.
Even though that incident passed, lawmakers made clear ahead of his speech that they hadn't forgotten about religious violence in India.
In a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) - who invited Modi to address Congress - a bipartisan group of 18 House lawmakers called for a discussion about religious freedom in India in light of violence against minorities.
"Religious minority communities - including Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Sikhs - have endured ongoing violence and harassment for decades in India, and continue to live in a climate where known perpetrators commit violence with impunity," the lawmakers wrote in a letter spearheaded by Reps. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Betty McCollum (D-Minn.).
"It is in the best interest of the United States and India to reaffirm religious freedom as a shared value in this growing partnership, and ensure that conversation concerning justice and accountability for such horrific acts of violence continues."
Modi largely avoided the topic in his remarks.
"For my government, the Constitution is its real holy book," Modi said. "And, in that holy book, freedom of faith, speech and franchise and equality of all citizens, regardless of background, are enshrined as fundamental rights."
Modi's address came a day after his meeting with President Obama at the White House, during which both leaders pledged to ratify the Paris climate agreement this year.
Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has vowed to backtrack on the Paris agreement if he is elected president.
Modi did not make reference to Trump in his speech. Pope Francis, the last foreign leader to speak before a joint session of Congress, took veiled shots at Trump's rhetoric last fall.
Obama and Modi said they would ramp up engagement on intellectual property rights and had agreed to make travel easier between their two nations for a broad range of visitors, including professionals and students.
The leaders are expected to meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in September.
Modi noted that India trades more with the U.S. than with any other nation, a notable comment in light of Trump's and other presidential candidates' opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
"Ties of commerce and investment are flourishing," he said. "And, the flow of goods, services and capital between us generates jobs in both our societies."
India is interested in joining the the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, a requirement for joining the 12-nation TPP. Obama said Tuesday that the U.S. welcomes India's interest in joining but has yet to fully endorse the move.
Modi said Wednesday he wants to complete sweeping social and economic transformations by 2022, the 75th anniversary of India's independence.
That vision includes a robust farm sector, electricity in all households, providing internet access for a majority of the vast nation's 1.25 billion people and building railways, roads and ports to enhance travel and trade.
"In every sector of India's forward march, I see the U.S. as an indispensable partner," Modi told Congress.
"Many of you also believe that a stronger and prosperous India is in America's strategic interest," he said.
He said that for U.S. businesses, "India could be their ideal partner" when searching for new areas of economic growth, markets for their goods, a pool of skilled resources and global locations to produce and manufacture.
U.S. business groups have expressed frustration about the lack of progress on issues such as a lack of intellectual property protections and high tariffs placed on goods that India needs but doesn't produce, especially in the technology sector.
They have called on Modi and his government to eliminate barriers that are hampering the flourishing of the commercial relationship between the world's two largest democracies.
He said that "looking eastward from India, across the Pacific, the innovation strength of our two countries comes together in California."
"Here, the innovative genius of America and India's intellectual creativity are working to shape new industries of the future."
Modi said his nation's strong economy and annual growth rate of 7.6 percent "is creating new opportunities for our mutual prosperity."
"Transformative American technologies in India and growing investment by Indian companies in the United States both have a positive impact on the lives of our citizens," he said.
Modi broached domestic American politics briefly, joking that he hears "the working of the U.S. Congress is harmonious" and that Congress is "well-known for your bipartisanship," a line that drew laughter from lawmakers.
"Well, you are not alone. Time and again, I have also witnessed a similar spirit in the Indian Parliament, especially in our Upper House," Modi joked. "So as you can see, we have many shared practices."