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'Modi hit the ball out of the park'

Last updated on: June 09, 2016 15:03 IST

'The speech he delivered had a profound impact on my colleagues,' US Congressman Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, tells Aziz Haniffa/ in an exclusive interview.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a joint meeting of the United States Congress, January 8, 2016. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

Republican Congressman Ed Royce, chairman of the United States House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and the driving force behind urging Speaker Paul Ryan to invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address a joint meeting of the US Congress, says Modi hit the ball right out of the park during his Capitol Hill speech.

In an exclusive interview with Aziz Haniffa/, immediately after he hosted a reception for Modi, along with other senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Royce said: "It was both a honour to serve on the Escort Committee that welcomed and then accompanied the prime minister on the House floor, and to host the reception afterwards with members of the key foreign policy committees in Congress."

Asked what he believed were the highs of Modi's speech, the lawmaker, who has struck up a close friendship with the prime minister from the time the latter was Gujarat chief minister, said, "He finished with a strong argument using Walt Whitman's comments about a new symphony here."

"The symphony has changed. The relationship is going to be obviously much deeper. Our partnership is going to be much stronger, and so, he hit on these issues -- whether it's a nuclear power, or a space exploration, or defence or trade or renewable energy -- we are going to build a very strong partnership based on our many shared values," Royce said.

"I believe that that theme resonates and the prime minister offered a very thoughtful and compelling address about how we can continue working together to promote peace and prosperity," he added.

While concluding his speech, Modi referred to poet Walt Whitman's line. "The orchestra have sufficiently tuned their instruments, the baton has given the signal," he said, quoting from Whitman's iconic poem Leaves of Grass.

Then he added, "And there is a new symphony in play."

Royce acknowledged that the prime minister's tough remarks on terrorism -- much of it fomented from across the border in Pakistan -- and Modi's naming the Lashkar-e-Tayiba would help bring about "much greater understanding" in the US Congress.

"I believe there is much greater understanding in Congress post 9/11 of the arguments that the prime minister was making," Royce observed.

"In the past, when this discussion (on terrorism) has come up, prior to the attack in New York, it was difficult, probably for some members of Congress to comprehend what India was going through with the terrorist attacks in India. But now, there is that understanding and I think that was an important message, because counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing cooperation is going to be such a big part of our joint efforts going forward," he said.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Modi greets US Vice-President Joe Biden as House Speaker Paul D Ryan looks on. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

Recalling his earlier interview with on the eve of Modi's fourth visit to the US, Royce said Modi's address to Congress would afford him a tremendous opportunity to not just speak to members of Congress but to America as a whole and now he has most definitely made use of that opportunity.

"A joint meeting of Congress," he said, "is a unique opportunity to address the American people and their representatives. I believe he was so effective in speaking not just to Americans, but to the world. The prime minister's address was an important sign of the special US-India relationship."

"I had spoken to the prime minister about this issue when I had a bipartisan delegation to New Delhi last year, and I don't think he could have been more effective. He really hit the ball out of the park. That speech he delivered had a profound impact on my colleagues," said Royce.

He acknowledged how Modi's speech played even better because it was laced with humour and contained many laugh lines that elicited peals of appreciative laughter.

"It was a case of him being comfortable in being able to use humour with an American audience and the humour was effective," Royce said.

Over the years, Royrce said he had listened to several addresses by world leaders and others to a joint meeting of the US Congress, and Modi's speech was right up there with the best of them.

"It certainly was and I believe this address will have a stabilising effect as the two democracies -- India and the United States -- on the world stage, have an important responsibility to help bring stability and peace. And, he referred to that," he said.

Modi, Royce said, during his speech referred to the role that the United States and India have to play and how US-India defence trade has strengthened India's role as a provider of security in the Indian Ocean region.

"So when he speaks to the issue of India's air force evacuating Americans and Indians and other nationals from Yemen, and about the relief efforts, whether it is for Nepal or Sri Lanka, Americans understand that India was using American manufactured C-130s (Hercules) and C-17s (Globemaster III) on this mission," he said.

"The points or the arguments he (Modi) was making before Congress resonated very strongly with the members and I think also with the American people as he referred to the role America played during D-Day -- in terms of protecting freedom in Europe," Royce observed.

IMAGE: Ed Royce with Modi at the reception. Photograph: Ed Royce/Twitter

At the reception, he hosted after Modi finished his speech, Royce recalled his first meeting with Modi 15 years ago.

"When we first met, Prime Minister Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat and at that point, an earthquake had levelled Bhuj. I remember, we flew in with USAID (United States Agency for International Development) the day after the quake and my memory is of the chief minister bringing order out of the chaos."

"I remember the leadership. I remember his efforts on the ground, directing and setting an example. As we watched the enormity of that perseverance and that entrepreneurial spirit of the people in Gujarat, what struck me was that the reforms you were bringing then as the chief minister. They were bringing a situation where we saw 10 percent economic growth per year. It looked as if this was the type of leadership that India could use," Royce said.

"Today, US-India cooperation is better than ever. We have seen the navy-to-navy exchanges. We have seen the cooperation on counter-terrorism. We have seen efforts now that you've put forward to build up what we're doing on space cooperation. And on so many different fronts that set this foundation, these two great democracies are intent on seeing the same values," Royce told more than 500 people, including several hundred members of the Indian-American community present at the reception.

"We understand that India is in a tough neighbourhood," he said, "but we also understand that with your words here today, that you have, with that symphony that you spoke of, set a new note."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC