Black on white, white on black. At 3:19 p.m. Thursday, when America’s first ever Indian American Vice President Kamala Harris welcomed India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave for the first time after taking power in the 2020 elections, it was a striking visual for a historic moment, blending austere monochrome with the all-white backdrop of the White House pillars.
Both wore masks – Modi white and Harris black. Harris dressed in a sleek black and white pantsuit, and sported her string of trusty pearls. Modi arrived in a crisp, milky white kurta ensemble with a black Nehru jacket, teamed with black shoes. Harris began about 5 minutes of remarks noting the passage of time since Modi was here last.
“It is my understanding that this is your first trip outside of South Asia for at least the last 16 months,” she said.
Back then, Donald Trump was US president, his Twitter megaphone was a riot, Covid-19 hadn’t exploded, masks weren’t yet a cultural flashpoint, Modi and Trump headlined a “Howdy, Modi!” rally in Houston, drawing over 50,000 people.
Trump is gone now, Biden has pulled US troops from Afghanistan, US, Britain and Australia stunned France by cutting a multibillion-dollar contract to acquire US nuclear-powered vessels. The political contrasts are sharp, Chinese aggression is rising, global contradictions are shifting, flexible multi alignments are on the ascendant.
Biden’s deputy Harris spoke first today, invoking themes that will be on full display on Friday, at the first-ever leader level Quad summit. Fragility, cooperation and resilience were on the table in the context of the Indo-Pacific.
“And as it relates to the Indo-Pacific, the US, like India, feels very strongly about the pride of being a member of the Indo-Pacific, but also the fragility and the importance and strength as well of those relationships, including maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Harris said.
Harris thanked Modi for cooperation on Covid-19 vaccines.
“Early in the pandemic, India was a vital source of vaccines for other countries. When India experienced a surge of Covid in the country, the US was very proud to support India in its need and responsibility to vaccinate its people,” she said.
India’s vaccination effort came in for special mention.
“It is of particular note and admiration that India, I’m told, is currently vaccinating approximately 10 million people a day, as of today,” Harris noted.
Modi began speaking at 3:24 p.m., checking off many of the same boxes.
“India was confronted with the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic — a very difficult time for us. But so — like a family, the sense of kinship and so warmly you extended a helping hand, the words that you chose when you spoke to me — I will always remember that, and I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he told Harris.
Modi invited Harris to India, to continue “this journey of victory”. India, he said, is “waiting to welcome you”.
Whenever Kamala Harris touches down in India, it will be a standout journey for the idea of the Indian diaspora’s promise. Her rise was made possible by another audacious traveller – her mother Shyamala Gopalan, who arrived in America as a 19-year-old in 1958, on an academic scholarship.
Modi spoke to that potential today. “Excellency, between India and the US, there are very vibrant and strong people-to-people connections that we have. You know that all too well,” he said.
“More than 4 million people of Indian origin, the Indian community is a bridge between our two countries — a bridge of friendship. And their contribution to the economies and societies of both our countries is indeed very praiseworthy.”
(Nikhila Natarajan is on Twitter @byniknat)