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If Only the South Lawn Trees Could Speak: I Was There When Prime Minister Modi Made History

If Only the South Lawn Trees Could Speak: I Was There When Prime Minister Modi Made History

  • Indian Americans traveled long distances specifically for this event — behind us was a family from California, and ahead of us was a group of entrepreneurs from North Carolina.

On June 1, 2023, all four leaders of the U.S. Congress released a letter inviting Indian Prime Minister Modi to address a Joint Meeting of the U.S. Congress. Modi was going to be the only fourth person in history to address the U.S. Congress more than once (the other three being Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, and Binyamin Netanyahu). This set the tone for Modi’s State Visit to the U.S.

Thursday, June 22, 2023: my wife and I woke up at 4 am to get ready. It was still dark outside when our friend Ashwani drove into our driveway at 4.55 am. His 80-year-old father was with him. Both were dressed in traditional Indic clothes as were we. Ashwani was there to pick us up from our place to go to Sri Bhaktha Anjaneya Temple (Lord Hanuman Temple per North Indian tradition) in suburban Maryland, about 41 miles (65km) northwest of The White House. As we arrived at the temple located on Ayodhya Way 20 minutes later, the cows at the temple’s Gausahala were about to be fed and the priests were preparing the temple for the morning pooja on that Guruvaar (the weekday dedicated to Guru (Jupiter in English), Lord of Wisdom and dispeller of darkness from our lives. The nearby Sai Baba temple’s doors were being opened for the day around the same time. Several buses had already arrived to transport us to the White House.

5.40 am: We were on our way to the White House. So were another 7,000 Indian Americans making their way to the White House to attend the Arrival Ceremony of Prime Minister Modi’s 2023 State Visit. 

The previous night, there was still a 60% probability of rain in the Washington, D.C. area on Thursday. Fortunately, as we approached the capital, the sky was clearing up. We were dropped off at the National Museum of African American History and Culture at 7.05 am. In front of us was the Washington Memorial, pointing directly to the skies as if matching the height of enthusiasm of the people we were about to meet. 

As we started walking towards the South Lawn of the White House, we could see flags of the U.S., India, and Washington, D.C. on light poles, gently fluttering in the light breeze. Below those flags, on the sidewalk of 15th St. NW along the “Ellipse,” festively dressed, enthusiastic, and jubilant people were joining the line by the hundreds every minute. Soon, the queue had curved around the corner where 15th St. NW intersects Constitution Avenue. The mood was livened up with frequent calls of Vande MataramBharat Mata ki Jai, and “USA! USA!.”

Indian Americans had traveled long distances specifically for this event — behind us was a family from California, ahead of us was a group of entrepreneurs from North Carolina, a family from India, and another family from the UK. All of us were full of anticipation and excitement. 

8.30 am: We were at the White House.

We walked through a corridor of the White House, took some pictures, and picked up flags of India and the U.S. as well as a commemorative brochure. From a distance, we could see our friend Ashwani, who had picked us up in the morning, standing by his seated father. Once in their respective zone, people were jostling to get the best view of the small, elevated stage from where President Biden and Prime Minister Modi were to make remarks. 

As we patiently waited for 10 o’clock, two performances took place. First, there was a violin performance by Vibha Janakiraman, a youth violinist and 2023 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts. Next, the South Asian cappella group Penn Masala performed a rendition of the Bollywood song Jashn-E-Bahaara from the film “Jodhaa Akbar.” They followed that up with a rendition of Chaiyya Chaiyya from the Hindi movie “Dil Se.” A few showers around this time sent the visitors scurrying for cover. Thankfully, the rain was brief. 

Suddenly, the whole scene was filled with the sound of the military band playing Ruffles and Flourishes and Hail to the Chief. Simultaneously, two contingents with the U.S. and Indian flags started to march elegantly toward the platform and took their places in front of the White House. A vehicle carrying the official delegation, including Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, was the first to arrive. 

10 am: President Biden, First Lady Dr. Biden, and Prime Minister Modi arrive amid full-throated calls of Bharat Mata ki Jai and USA! USA! 

The much-awaited historic Arrival Ceremony commenced. Following the 19 Gun Salute, the national anthems of India and the USA were played. The Review of Troops and the Review of Musical Troop were the next two ceremonial performances. 

The remarks by the President and the Prime Minister were notable in that they both made “We the People” the touchstone of their respective addresses, the phrase with which the constitutions of both countries start. President Biden and Prime Minister elaborated on defense, security, and technology: areas in which strategic, long-term agreements and deals were going to be signed over the next two days. 

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 quipped that several years ago, on a private visit to the U.S., he saw the White House from outside. After becoming the Prime Minister he visited the White House several times. However, this was the first time when he had brought 7,000 Indian American “friends” with him to the White House in a historic, unique, and largest event of its kind. 

The event came to a close with Biden, First Lady, and Modi waving to the gathering from the White House balcony. 

See Also

Major factors that provided the impetus to the genesis of the State Visit were the deepening economic ties, and the unfolding global geopolitics resulting in serious security imperatives. The defense was a major focus of deepening cooperation, signified by the purchase of 31 MQ 9 weaponized drones, as well as the agreement for co-production of the General Electric Corporations’ F414 fighter engine jet in India for the Indian as well as global markets. 

As Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar explained, the Jet Engine deal’s significance can be gauged from the fact that the U.S. has decided to share technology with India “that is perhaps held closer than even nuclear technology. Very, very rare for a country to share the jet engine technology”. It is worth noting that the U.S. has decided to share specialized defense technology with India, in part due to India’s strong legal protection for Intellectual Property (IP) and non-proliferation record. 

Another area of deepening ties and investments is semiconductors, the core of several critical solutions in several vital industries such as defense, energy, aerospace, high-tech manufacturing, supercomputing, and more. Biotech, clean energy, and IT are additional areas identified for deeper collaboration between India and the U.S. Defense deals worth $80 Billion were finalized during the visit, and a roadmap was identified to increase annual U.S.-India trade from the current $180 billion to $500 billion. Many of the agreements signed during the visit were guided by the initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET). Launched in May 2022 to facilitate outcome-oriented cooperation. 

In addition to specific areas of cooperation, the people-to-people interaction, driven by shared beliefs in economic progress, democracy, and just society, continues to play a vital and vibrant role in fostering ties between the U.S. and India. 

It is likely that the Arrival Ceremony of Prime Minister Modi’s 2023 State Visit will be remembered for its historic nature. A long time from now many of us, who witnessed the history being made on the  South Lawn that Thursday morning, will no longer be there. But if the trees of the South Lawn could speak, they would talk for a long time about the unfolding of history that they witnessed with us. 

Om Shanti.

Pranay Kohli is a Washington, D.C., based clean energy professional. He has lived and worked in India, Germany, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S.

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