WASHINGTON – For nearly a decade, Narendra Modi wasn’t allowed to set foot in the United States.
But times, titles and political agendas change.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed Modi, the prime minister of India, to the White House on Thursday for a state visit filled with the kind of pomp and pageantry afforded only to the nation’s closest friends.
Standing next to Modi on the White House South Lawn, Biden said he has long believed that the relationship between the United States and India will be “one of the defining relationships of the 21st century.”
Modi was denied a visa to enter the U.S. in 2005, when he was the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, over charges that he had failed to stop deadly riots against minority Muslims. But now that he’s the leader of the world’s largest democracy, the Biden administration has been embracing him more closely as it seeks to counter China’s global influence.
Given Modi’s history with the U.S., there were bound to be some unusual, and even awkward, moments during his state visit:
Red carpets and yellow yoga mats
Not many state visits start with yoga.
But Modi not only walked the red carpet. He stretched out on a yellow yoga mat.
Modi, a yoga enthusiast, and roughly a thousand other practitioners of the Hindu spiritual and aesthetic discipline demonstrated their technique on Wednesday, day one of Modi’s four-day visit to the United States.
The 72-year-old grey-bearded prime minister took his place on a mat on the grassy North Lawn area outside the United Nations headquarters in New York. For the next half hour, he practiced breathing exercises, meditation, backbends and other poses.
“Namaste,” he told the crowd before the exercises began.
The event was held in recognition of the International Day of Yoga, which Modi persuaded the U.N. to observe annually not long after he became India’s leader in 2014. This year’s event set a Guinness World Record for most nationalities – 135 – at a yoga session.
Modi’s message to his fellow yoga enthusiasts: “Let’s use the power of yoga, not only to be healthy, happy, but to be kind to ourselves and each other.”
The first lady and Modi take a field trip
The first couple of times the Bidens hosted a foreign dignitary for a state visit, Jill Biden arranged an outing with the leader’s spouse.
She took Brigitte Macron, wife of French President Emmanuel Macron, to the interactive Plant Word museum, just a few blocks from the White House. Kim Keon Hee, wife of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, got a private tour of the National Gallery of Art.
But Modi’s spouse didn’t accompany him on the trip to Washington. What’s more, Joe Biden wasn’t in town for Modi’s arrival on Wednesday. He was traveling back to Washington from California, where he had been raising money for his re-election campaign.
So the first lady and the prime minister took a quick field trip to National Science Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington, to highlight workforce training programs.
Modi, who arrived late, missed a demonstration of a robot creating abstract art on paper and another showing how an underwater robot can be used to aid fishing. But in brief remarks, he said his government has established labs in schools to encourage young entrepreneurs.
His goal, he said, is to make this decade a “tech decade.”
A plant-based feast
The night before the official state dinner, the Bidens hosted Modi for a private dinner at the White House, where they dined on a few of the president’s favorite foods, including pasta and ice cream.
The menu for the official state dinner on Thursday catered to Modi’s palate.
Modi is a vegetarian, so the 400 invited guests were served an entirely plant-based meal: A salad of marinated millet. Corn and compressed watermelon. Stuffed Portobello mushrooms and saffron risotto. A strawberry shortcake infused with rose and cardamom.
The first lady enlisted the help of chef Nina Curtis, who specializes in plant-based cooking, to work with White House chefs to come up with the menu.
Guests were given the option of adding fish to the main course.
Modi (finally) meets the press
It’s not unusual for Biden to hold a joint news conference with foreign leaders whenever they visit the White House.
But when Modi took the dais in the White House East Room on Thursday for a Q&A with Biden, it was remarkable turn of events.
Modi, who tries to avoid unscripted moments and has presided over a steady decline in press freedom in his country, has never held a solo news conference and often avoids questions by deferring to others on stage with him.
Biden and Modi each answered two questions – one from an Indian journalist who asked Modi about climate change, the other from a Wall Street Journal reporter who pressed him on human rights concerns. It was the first time Modi had fielded a question at a news conference since he came to power in 2014.
The news conference was a scaled-down affair compared to those that usually are held as part of a state visit. Even so, Modi’s advisers were far from thrilled with the idea. Administration officials advised his team that taking questions from the media was standard protocol for White House state visits.
Modi’s people finally relented and agreed to the presser – but not until the day it was to be held.
‘No space for discrimination’ in India
Modi’s state visit infuriated human rights advocates who blame him for widespread attacks against India’s Muslims and other minorities.
Biden’s administration has accused India’s government of participating in unlawful and arbitrary killings, restricting freedom of speech and allowing violence against religious, racial and ethnic minorities. A group of more than 70 lawmakers asked Biden in a letter on Tuesday to raise the human rights concerns during Modi’s visit.
But during his joint news conference with Biden, Modi insisted there was no discrimination in India and argued that democracy is in India’s DNA.
“Democracy is our spirit, democracy runs in our veins – we live democracy,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.
“There’s absolutely no space for discrimination,” he insisted, which must have been news to his detractors.
Source: USA Today