Prime Minister Narendra Modi got eight standing ovations and 66 clapping interventions during his speech to a joint session of the United States Congress on Wednesday. That may not be a lot – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed 22 standing ovations even while criticising the American approach last year. But it is still remarkable for a man who, not long ago, was denied a visa to enter the country.
Modi's speech to the joint session on Wednesday lived up to its billing. The Indian prime minister is known for his ability to work a crowd, but his best speeches are usually combative affairs full of jabs and innuendo, all aimed at attacking an opponent. Modi is at his rhetorical best in a campaign rally. When he has to deliver something less angry, such as at the launch of a government scheme, Modi reverts to the boring sarkari approach except for a few funny acronyms here and there.
So there was no guarantee that his speech to the US Congress would be good, let alone entertaining. The 45-minute affair featured plenty of the usual platitudes, from temple of democracy to the Constitution being a holy book and even "strong" people-to-people links.
But amid all of that were passages like this below, which used personalities to drive home the connection between India and America.
"Gandhi's non-violence inspired the heroism of Martin Luther King. Today, a mere distance of three miles separates the Martin Luther King memorial at Tidal Basin from the statue of Gandhi at Massachusetts Avenue. This proximity of their memorials in Washington mirrors the closeness of ideals and values they believed in.
The genius of Dr BR Ambedkar was nurtured in the years he spent at the Columbia University a century ago. The impact of the US constitution on him was reflected in his drafting of the Indian constitution some three decades later. Our independence was ignited by the same idealism that fuelled your struggle for freedom.
No wonder then that former Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee called India and the U.S. 'natural allies'. No wonder that the shared ideals and common philosophy of freedom shaped the bedrock of our ties. No wonder then, that President Obama has called our ties the defining partnership of the 21st century. "
The speech played with style, varied its tone and more importantly, rhythm, and even featured what is quickly becoming a Modi classic: Attacking Indians from abroad. In this case, however, his example was mostly cheeky, a reference to the gridlock that affects both the Indian and American legislative bodies.
"I am informed that the working of the US Congress is harmonious. I am also told that you are well-known for your bipartisanship.
Well, you are not alone.
Time and again, I have also witnessed a similar spirit in the Indian Parliament, especially in our Upper House. So, as you can see, we have many shared practices."
With Modi quoting everyone from Thoreau to Swami Vivekananda, there was no doubt that his speech had all the gravitas it needed. Beyond making fun of the Rajya Sabha, though, Modi still managed to throw in a few other digs, including this wonderfully meta series of sentences that name-checks everything from the Apple's personal assistant to hipsters becoming more popular than baseball fans in America.
"Our people to people links are strong; and there is close cultural connect between our societies. Siri tells us that India's ancient heritage of yoga has over 30 million practitioners in the U.S. It is estimated that more Americans bend for yoga than to throw a curve ball.
And, no Mr. Speaker, we have not yet claimed intellectual property right on yoga."
Unpacking that would add nothing to the joke but it is still remarkable. Modi, and his speech writer, managed to include cliches, the computer programme Siri, Yoga's popularity, the decline of baseball and the acknowledgment of India's disputes with America over intellectual property rights.
Even if this wasn't the most representative portion of a speech that also announced tax problems, further defence partnerships and India's relationship with Afghanistan, the inclusion of the joke says plenty about Modi's approach to the joint session.
India is no longer pleading for help or asking for global acceptance, as previous prime ministers have done. Instead it is laying down its policy and interspersing that with some meta humour. India has arrived, and it wants your investment dollars, but not much else.
Modi's kicker, with which he ended the speech, made this explicit.
"My final thoughts and words would reiterate that our relationship is primed for a momentous future. Thee constraints of the past are behind us and foundations of the future are firmly in place.
In the lines of Walt Whitman,
"The orchestra have sufficiently tuned their instruments, the baton has given the signal."
And to that, if I might add, there is a new symphony in play."