WASHINGTON (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the U.S. Congress on Wednesday that the world's two largest democracies can anchor stability and prosperity from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific in an aspirational speech that glossed over continuing divisions in the relationship.
Modi, who has ushered in closer bilateral ties since taking power two years ago, said that India and the U.S. have overcome "the hesitations of history" and called for ever-stronger economic and defense links between the two countries.
Speaking in English, Modi used dashes of humor, drawing a parallel between the rough-and-tumble politics of his own nation and the U.S., which he described tongue-in-cheek as "harmonious" and well-known for bipartisanship. Modi, a keen advocate of yoga, also referenced cultural ties, citing estimates that "more Americans bend for yoga than to throw a curve ball."
Modi paid tribute to the role of Congress, including through a civilian nuclear deal in 2008 that lifted U.S. export restrictions on nuclear technology to India and which is hoped to lead to a contract by mid-2017 for the construction of six power reactors by U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric Co.
He also praised Congress for "refusing to reward" those who preach and practice terrorism. Although Modi avoided direct mention of Pakistan, he was alluding to lawmakers recently blocking a proposed, U.S.-subsided sale of F-16 fighter jets to India's archrival.
"A strong India-U.S. partnership can anchor peace, prosperity and stability from Asia to Africa and from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific," Modi said.
Modi's 46-minute speech followed years of being shunned in the U.S. because of religious violence in his home state. It came a day after a White House meeting with President Barack Obama and was followed by a lunch with congressional leaders and a reception hosted by the House and Senate Foreign Affairs committees.
U.S.-India relations have been transformed since Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 became the first of five Indian prime ministers to have addressed a joint meeting of Congress. During the Cold War, U.S. was more focused on ties with Pakistan, and many in Washington believed India, with its "non-aligned" foreign policy, was far too friendly with the Soviet Union.
Today, the U.S. and Indian militaries conduct more drills with each other than with any other nation. While India resists the notion of becoming a U.S. ally, both nation share concern over China's rise and over freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific region.
Although Modi lauded both nations' common democratic principles and hailed two heroes of nonviolence, India's Mahatma Gandhi and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., he did not address congressional concerns his government's record on religious tolerance and other rights issues.
"I wish there had been an emphasis on cooperating with the U.S. and every other democracy on combating all human rights abuses, especially human trafficking and slavery," said Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey.
But the overall response from lawmakers of both parties was positive.
"We're now standing shoulder-to-shoulder in ways that no one would have imagined a generation ago," Rep. Eliot Engel of new York, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said of the bilateral relationship.
Modi described the U.S. as an "indispensable partner" for India. He said his nation's 1.25 billion people made India an "ideal partner" for U.S businesses. Trade has expanded dramatically in recent years, from $60 billion in 2009 to $107 billion in 2015, although the U.S. remains concerned over restrictions on foreign investment and bureaucratic red tape.
Modi did not read a passage from his prepared remarks that said he and Obama "have agreed" that making India a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council "has to be an intrinsic part of this century's new reality." It was not immediately clear why Modi dropped the reference. Obama first voiced support for Indian membership in 2010 and reaffirmed it Tuesday, but it appears no closer to happening because of resistance from other council permanent members.
At his meeting with Obama, the two leaders consolidated strong bilateral ties but fell short of major outcomes. India, the world's third-largest carbon emitter among nations, said it would strive to formally join a global climate deal this year — as the U.S. and China have said they will do — but it gave no ironclad commitment.
The last Indian prime minister to address Congress was Modi's predecessor, Manmohan Singh, in 2005.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.