Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi charted a course for strong defense and counterterrorism ties with the U.S., sharing his vision in a warm address to American lawmakers that appeared geared toward maintaining close cooperation with Washington in future U.S. administrations.
“Today our relationship has overcome the hesitations of history,” Mr. Modi said. “In every sector of India’s forward march, I see the U.S. as an indispensable partner.”
Washington has worked carefully for years to advance defense ties with New Delhi as China grows increasingly assertive in Asia. Such strategic cooperation accelerated in the latter part of the Obama administration after Mr. Modi was elected prime minister in 2014.
While he didn’t mention China directly, Mr. Modi said, “In Asia, the absence of an agreed security architecture creates uncertainty.” A strong India-U.S. partnership can “help ensure security of the sea lanes of commerce and freedom of navigation on seas,” he said.
Mr. Modi won loud applause with allusions to American figures ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. and Walt Whitman to Abraham Lincoln, and the prime minister even joked about the partisan split of the lawmakers before him.
“I am informed that the working of the U.S. Congress is harmonious,” Mr. Modi quipped, before taking an analogous swipe at his own parliament, especially the upper house, which has impeded some of his administration’s policy goals.
Mr. Modi, frequently praised by the U.S. business community for his attempts to loosen restrictions on companies, also dwelled on the importance of better economic exchanges, especially in technology and civilian nuclear power—a focus of his meeting Tuesday with President Barack Obama.
India is eager for foreign investment to help build infrastructure and boost growth, and Mr. Modi has sought to reach out to Indian-American business leaders and investors. “He’s a guy you can do business with, too,” Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio.), a former U.S. trade representative, said after the speech.
Still, military cooperation and counterterrorism issues appeared to be front and center for some lawmakers.
“In all my years in Congress, I recall only a select few countries that rose so quickly to such an exalted esteem,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, in an op-ed published by CNN.
Mr. Modi reminded lawmakers of India’s purchases of billions of dollars of American materiel, new joint military exercises and joint work on counterterrorism and Afghanistan.
Starting Friday, warships from the U.S., India and Japan will conduct naval exercises off the eastern coast of Japan’s Okinawa islands. The site of the 2016 maneuvers is close to the East and South China Seas, where Beijing is locked in territorial disputes with neighboring countries.
In a stern voice, he singled out groups operating in South Asia that New Delhi says are backed by Pakistan, India’s major adversary. “Terrorism must be delegitimized,” he said. “Although its shadow is spreading across the world, it is incubated in India’s neighborhood.”
He commended Congress, which in recent months has taken a tough stance against subsidized weapons sales to Islamabad, for “sending a clear message to those who preach and practice terrorism.” India has long objected to U.S. military support for Pakistan.
The warm reception capped a big turnaround for Mr. Modi, who once was banned from entering the U.S. under a little-known law. For years, some members of Congress have criticized Mr. Modi’s previous role as leader of the state of Gujarat during a religious riot in which many Muslims were killed.
On Wednesday, Mr. Modi made passing reference to “equal respect for all faiths” and more generally discussed equality and other similarities that underlie the two biggest democracies.
But some lawmakers wanted more. “If I had one addition I would have made to this speech it would have been human rights” in greater detail, said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat whose northern Virginia district includes a growing number of Indian-Americans.
On Tuesday, a congressional commission on human rights reviewed recent attacks on Christian and Muslim minorities in India, and the co-chairman of the committee, Rep. Joe Pitts (R., Pa.), cited an “array of human-rights concerns that should give us pause.”
Human-rights leaders in the U.S. say Mr. Modi hasn’t put enough pressure on religion-linked violence blamed on members of his party.
But the prime minister’s supporters say he isn’t responsible for Hindu extremists drawn to his political movement. “Certainly you’ll see pockets of folks that are more extreme and more radical in India,” said Rep. Ami Bera, a California Democrat whose family came from Gujarat.
Mr. Bera said that even in the U.S. some politicians have strong views on religion, including Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump, who has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S.
—Niharika Mandhana contributed to this article.
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