White House says Modi’s first press conference in almost a decade ‘big deal’

Modi is on a high-level, three-day state visit to Washington that includes talks in Oval Office

Shweta Sharma
Thursday 22 June 2023 14:49 BST
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India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi listens as he visits the National Science Foundation in Alexandria
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi listens as he visits the National Science Foundation in Alexandria (AP)

Narendra Modi will address a press conference and take questions from journalists alongside Joe Biden during his historic state visit, breaking away from his norm of not taking reporters’ questions for the first time in nine years.

Facing boycott calls and criticism over his human rights record in India, Mr Modi is on a high-level, three-day state visit to Washington that includes talks in the Oval Office, a historic address to the US Congress, and a glittering state dinner.

Mr Modi, who is leading India in his second consecutive term, has gained the infamy of not taking direct questions from the media and has only appeared in occasional interviews during his nine-year long leadership.

The 72-year-old has not addressed a single press conference in India or abroad since May 2019, when he attended a press conference but did not take questions.

Welcoming the change, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said the White House understands the press conference is a “big deal”.

“We are just grateful that prime minister Modi is participating in a press event at the end of the visit,” Mr Kirby said. “We think that’s important and we’re glad he thinks that’s important too.”

He said the event will include one question from the US press and one from the Indian media for each leader.

Mr Biden’s press conferences with other world leaders are usually tightly controlled and typically have US officials vetting American and guest media beforehand for Mr Biden and the guest leader.

US pesident Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcome India prime minister Narendra Modi to the White House on 21 June
US pesident Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcome India prime minister Narendra Modi to the White House on 21 June (Getty Images)

Traditionally, such events have the leaders taking two questions from US media and two from foreign press corps.

But Mr Biden and Mr Modi will pivot from the traditional “two-and-two” and hold a “one-and-one” instead, by calling on one reporter from each side.

The pivot is a negotiation reached with Indian officials, who initially baulked at the White House’s insistence of Mr Modi facing members of press, two US officials familiar with the matter told CNN.

The state visit has been billed “one of the defining relationships of the 21st century” by national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

On Thursday, the second day of Mr Modi’s visit, the Indian leader will be welcomed by the White House, where the spirit of American friendship will be showcased with grandeur. Marching troops on the South Lawn will set the stage for in-depth discussions in the prestigious Oval Office, followed by a state dinner in the evening.

Narendra Modi presenting gifts to Jill Biden and Joe Biden
Narendra Modi presenting gifts to Jill Biden and Joe Biden (via REUTERS)

Mr Modi, who was denied entry to the US in 2005 over allegations of his involvement in sectarian violence, will address a joint sitting of the US Congress on Thursday amid a boycott by several American lawmakers.

He will be the first Indian prime minister to address Congress twice and only the third in the world to make such an address twice.

Mr Modi’s address, however, will bear witness to boycotts from progressive Democratic representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar over his “deeply troubling human rights record”.

Earlier this week, a group of over 70 lawmakers penned a letter to president Biden, urging him to address their concerns regarding the decline of religious, press and political liberties during his meeting with Mr Modi.

Two days of carefully orchestrated events marked a rocky start on Wednesday when Mr Modi arrived late for a planned tour with first lady Jill Biden, who started the visit without him at the National Science Foundation.

Mr Modi arrived 30 minutes late to the tour and apologised to Ms Biden.

US President Joe Biden (R) and First Lady Jill Biden (L) greet India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he arrives at the South Portico of the White House
US President Joe Biden (R) and First Lady Jill Biden (L) greet India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he arrives at the South Portico of the White House (AFP via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Mr Modi led the celebration for Yoga Day at the UN’s headquarters in New York. The leader, who is claimed to have a fit physique and whose supporters also claim he works tirelessly beyond working hours, praised yoga as a “way of life”.

He performed a range of poses, including a “cobra pose” in front of a multinational crowd.

“It is a very old tradition, but like all ancient Indian traditions, it is also living and dynamic,” Mr Modi said. “Yoga is truly universal.”

The Modi-Biden meeting is expected to herald the start of a stronger India-US partnership, with the signing of sweeping defence and trade agreements amid Washington’s attempt to counter China’s global influence.

Agreements are expected to be announced on semiconductors, critical minerals, technology, space cooperation and defence cooperation and sales.

Some of the deals are aimed at diversifying supply chains to reduce US dependence on China.

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