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Indian Prime Minister Lauds Ties in America's 'Temple of Democracy'

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures after addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — A leader of the world’s largest democracy addressed Congress for the first time in more than a decade in what he called America’s “temple of democracy.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he began his visit to D.C. two days ago “by going to the Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place of many brave soldiers of this great land.”

“I honor their courage and sacrifice for the ideals of freedom and democracy. It was also the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day. On that day, thousands from this great country fought to protect the torch of liberty,” Modi said. “…India applauds the great sacrifices of the men and women from the land of the free and the home of the brave in service of mankind. India knows what this means, because our soldiers have fallen in distant battlefields for the same ideals.”

“Our nations may have been shaped by diverse histories, cultures and faiths, yet our belief in democracy for our nations and liberty for our countrymen is common. The idea that all citizens are created equal is a central pillar of the American Constitution. Our founding fathers do share the same belief and sought individual liberty for every citizen of India.”

Modi called India’s constitution the “real holy book” of his country.

The prime minister reflected on India’s influence in the United States, from Gandhi’s nonviolence that “inspired the heroism of Martin Luther King” to the “unique and dynamic bridge of three million Indian-Americans.”

“Today, they are among your best CEOs, academics, astronauts, scientists, economists, doctors, even spelling bee champions,” he said. “They are your strengths. They are also the pride of India.”

Scripps National Spelling Bee co-champions Nihar Janga and Jairam Hathwar were watching the address from the box where the first lady usually watches the State of the Union speech.

Modi also needled Congress: “Mr. Speaker, I am informed that the working of the U.S. Congress is harmonious. I am also told that you are well-known for your bipartisanship.” Lawmakers laughed and applauded.

He also boasted of a particular Indian export: “It is estimated that more Americans bend for yoga than to throw a curveball,” he said. “And no, Mr. Speaker, we have not yet claimed intellectual property right on yoga.”

Modi said he has a long “to-do list” to “economically empower” India’s youth “through many social and economical transformations, and do so by 2022, the 75th anniversary of India’s independence.”

“It includes a vibrant rural economy with a robust farm sector. A roof over each head and electricity for all households, to skill millions of our youth build hundreds more cities, have broadband for a billion and connect our villages to the digital world… I see the U.S. as an indispensable partner. Many of you also believe that a stronger and prosperous India is in America’s strategic interest.”

The prime minister noted that he spent Christmas in Afghanistan “to dedicate to that proud nation its parliament, a testimony to our democratic ties,” and more recently visited Herat to see an Afghan-Indian “friendship dam.”

“Afghans naturally recognize that the sacrifices of America have helped create a better life,” Modi continued. “But your contribution in keeping the region safe and secure is deeply appreciated by even beyond. And India, too, has made an enormous contribution and sacrifices to support our friendship with Afghan people.”

“A commitment to rebuild a peaceful and stable and prosperous Afghanistan is our shared objective. Yet, distinguished members, not just in Afghanistan, but elsewhere in South Asia and globally, terrorism remains the biggest threat.”

Modi noted that in the “stretching from west of India’s border to Africa, it may go by different names, from Lashkar-e-Taiba, to Taliban to ISIS, but its philosophy is common; of hate, murder and violence.”

“Although it is a shadow is spreading across the world, it is incubated in India’s neighborhood. I commend the members of the U.S. Congress for sending a clear message to those who preach and practice terrorism for political gains,” he added. “…Terrorism must be de-legitimized.”

Before he became prime minister, Modi was banned from traveling to the United States. As chief minister of the state of Gujarat, the U.S. charged that the Hindu nationalist didn’t do enough to stop riots in which Muslims were killed.

House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) noted after the speech that last quarter India reported 7.6 percent GDP growth, “making it the fastest growing economy in the world.”

“Under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi and his commitment to free marketplace ideals, the relationship between the United States and India has flourished. Since 2014, the prime minister has been a shining example that a real leader can accomplish robust job creation and a prosperous economy behind the strength of a pro-growth agenda,” Sessions said. “…As two of the world’s largest democracies it is of the utmost importance that we embrace the common bonds between our two great nations to take advantage of 21st century economic opportunities.”