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When Modi Was Asked THE Question...

By ABHIJIT J MASIH
Last updated on: June 23, 2023 17:18 IST
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Back in the Press Briefing room on being commended for her questions to President Biden and the Indian prime minister, The Wall Street Journal's Sabrina Siddiqui responded, "You gotta do it."
Rediff.com Contributor Abhijit J Masih reports from The White House.

IMAGE: Sabrina Siddiqui from The Wall Street Journal asks Narendra D Modi the first question he has ever been asked at a press conference since he become prime minister, to which he replied thus. Photographs and Video: Abhijit J Masih for Rediff.com

The Secret Service got no chill. Media, hard pass holder (usually American media White House correspondents), accredited foreign press or visiting Indian media contingent, they judiciously treat everyone alike -- with equal disdain.

"Are you departing?" asked one stationed between the press briefing room and the exit gate on the North West side, closer to the West Wing. 'Departing' -- a word in White House parlance -- exiting not to return.

The Indian media contingent though was handled with care by the White House press department. The 'Indian pool' was escorted by a dedicated White House person at all times.

Immediately after the Biden-Modi press conference ended in the East Room, while the foreign press and the US media were asked to wait, the Indian media team left first so that they could accompany Prime Minister Narendra D Modi to Capitol Hill where he was to address the joint session of the United States Congress.

Many of the American and foreign press could not make it to cover the speech to both Houses of Congress.

A Historic Visit

The day was unlike any other for many who attended the official ceremony in the morning. The only dampener was the dull and wet weather, though the rains gods hit pause during the important stage of the hour-long ceremony. For the Indian Americans -- some estimates put the numbers at 7,000 though 2,000 appeared a more believable figure -- in attendance, it wasn't short of a festival.

IMAGE: External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar and Eric Garcetti, the US ambassador to India, have a quick pow-wow before the Modi-Biden press conference.
The EAM and the ambassador were among the group of six officials in the Oval Office when the prime minister and the US president had their most confidential discussion.
National Security Adviser Ajit Kumar Doval, Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra, US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan were the others.

 

"India is a democracy," Modi told the rare press conference, responding to the question that was expected by most to be put to him by the US media -- the human rights, democracy and minorities question.

It did not come as a surprise even when only two questions were allowed after President Biden and Prime Minister Modi had made their opening remarks. One of the hardest questions to answer when you haven't answered an unscripted question in nine years.

Back in the Press Briefing room on being commended for her questions to President Biden and the Indian prime minister, The Wall Street Journal's Sabrina Siddiqui responded, "You gotta do it."

Amid rising concerns about the dilution of democracy in India and the pressure on Biden to push for discussions on the topic, this was a question that must have been a no-brainer for the PMO to prepare a fitting response.

IMAGE: A US soldier keeps a watch as Indian and American journalists take their places in the East Room of the White House for the Modi-Biden press conference.

While the media inside the White House confines was busy recording and reporting the events unfolding on location, there were slogans being chanted outside. It was easy to mistake them to be originating from the South Lawns by the Indian Americans who had congregated to see Modi.

Right outside the White House gates there was a contingent of -- who else? -- pro-Khalistan supporters who could be heard even from outside the press briefing room within the campus sloganeering against the US State guest. A group of approximately 40 Sikhs had camped outside the White House and had not moved even when the prime minister left for Capitol Hill.

"This is horrible. If they have to do it, they should do it in India," said an Indian father visiting Washington, DC with his family from Chicago during the summer break. They had not planned to come for Modi, but were interested if they could enter the White House if they could.

IMAGE: A glimpse of the Indian Americans who had gathered for the welcome ceremony at the White House on Thursday morning.
Chants of 'Modi! Modi!' punctuated the air.

On Wednesday, there was another event in New York that coincided with the Yoga day celebrations at the United Nations -- 'Howdy Democracy!?' "It has a question and an exclamation mark. What is democracy right now, in India?" asks Shruti Ganguly, a film-maker and the organiser of the event.

"The event was an attempt to bring together artists, people from literature and activists; people who have been very vocal for a while. We wanted to create an incredible evening where we could come together with collective disappointment about the state of democracy in India today," she says.

Interactions between journalists on a day when waiting overshadowed reporting, the discussion veered towards Rahul Gandhi. A few of the journalists had attended events during Gandhi's visit to America last month, both in California and New York. They felt that the weight of the dynastic legacy and the elitist image keeps him from connecting to a common person, even with an Indian journalist working in New York.

IMAGE: "Modiji has recognized the Indian Americans' contribution and opened the doors of the White House for so many of us," says Ushang Desai, who has lived in the US for 20 years.
Two elderly gentlemen, one dressed in saffron with a BJP pin, have lived in Maryland for over 30 years and hailed Prime Minister Modi as a world leader.

The day was eventful to say the least. A day where Indian Americans were mentioned numerous times. A day that was joyous for many Indians that saw unprecedented respect and honour being showered on India and Indians by the US in great measure.

A day that included a press conference by the prime minister. A day where deals and investments were announced by not just the US in India, but by India in the US. A day when Prime Minister Modi assured us that democracy is well and alive in India.

At the State dinner Prime Minister Modi raised a toast, saying, 'To liberty and the everlasting bonds of friendship.'

May both liberty and friendship prevail.

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ABHIJIT J MASIH AT THE WHITE HOUSE
 
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