(AHMEDABAD, INDIA) — Basking in adulation from a massive, colorful crowd, President Donald Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi lavished each other with praise Monday in a reaffirmation of U.S.-India ties as the subcontinent poured on the pageantry in a joyful welcome for the U.S. president.
More than 100,000 people packed into the world’s largest cricket stadium in Modi’s home state to give Trump the biggest rally crowd of his political career. The event was the pinnacle of the day’s enviable trio of presidential photo-ops, sandwiched between Trump visits to a former home of independence leader Mohandas Gandhi and a planned tour of the famed Taj Mahal.
Nearly everyone in the newly constructed stadium in Ahmedabad in western India sported a white cap with the name of the event, “Namaste, Trump” or “Welcome, Trump,” and roared for the introductions of both leaders.
Embarking on a whirlwind 36-hour visit, Trump opened his speech by declaring that he had traveled 8,000 miles to deliver the message that “America loves India, America respects India and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.”
The boisterous scene featured musicians on camels and a musical medley of Bollywood hits and Trump’s campaign rally playlist, including numerous Elton John songs that seemed to puzzle most of the crowd. Trump basked in the raucous reception that has eluded him on many foreign trips, some of which have featured massive protests and icy handshakes from world leaders. In India, he instead received a warm embrace — literally — from the ideologically aligned and noted hugger Modi.
President Donald Trump looks on as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves during ‘Namaste Trump’ rally at Sardar Patel Stadium in Motera, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, on Feb. 24, 2020.
Mamdel Ngan–AFP/Getty Images
The sun-baked city of Ahmedabad bustled as Trump arrived, its streets teeming with people eager to catch a glimpse of the American president. Newly cleaned roads and planted flowers dotted the roads amid hundreds of billboards featuring the president and first lady Melania Trump. Thousands lined his motorcade route, shy of the up to 10 million that Trump speculated would be on hand.
His first stop was Gandhi’s home, where Trump donned a prayer shawl and removed his shoes to create the incongruous image of a grandiose president quietly walking through the humble ashram. He inspected the spinning wheel used by the famed pacifist and looked at a statue of monkeys representing Gandhi’s mantra of “See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil” before departing for a far more boisterous setting: the mega-rally at the world’s largest cricket stadium.
Trump’s motorcade traveled amid cheers from a battery of carefully picked and vetted Modi loyalists and workers from his Bharatiya Janata Party who will stand for hours alongside the neatly manicured 22-kilometer (14-mile) stretch of road to accord the president a grand welcome on his way to the newly constructed stadium. Tens of thousands of police officers were on hand to keep security tight and a new wall has come up in front of a slum, apparently to hide it from presidential passers-by.
On the way to the stadium, Trump’s motorcade crossed a river where a barge was emblazoned with “TRUMP” and onlookers chanted “Modi!” The stadium was packed with revelers, many of whom sported Trump and Modi masks, as they sat in 80-degree heat. Scores of attendees, particularly those sitting in the sun, streamed out before Trump finished his 27-minute speech.
The “Namaste Trump” rally was, in a way, the back half of home-and-home events for Modi and Trump, who attended a “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston last year that drew 50,000 people. Trump lavished praise on both Modi and the democracy he leads, touting an effort to lift residents out of extreme poverty, saying “India gives hope to all of humanity.”
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump listen to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they sit next to a charkha, or spinning wheel, during their visit at Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad on Feb. 24, 2020.
Mandel Ngan–AFP/Getty Images
“The story of the Indian nation is a tale of astounding progress,” Trump said. “Today I say to every Indian, north and south … take pride in the glories of your past. unite for an even brighter future and let our two nations always stand together as powerful defenders of peace and liberty.”
Trump’s foreign visits have typically been light on sightseeing, but he and the first lady were to visit the Taj Mahal, the immense white marble mausoleum built in Agra in the 17th century. Stories in local media warn of the monkeys that inhabit the landmark pestering tourists for food and, on occasion, menacing both visitors and slingshot-carrying security guards.
Images of American presidents being feted on the world stage stand in contrast to those of their rivals in the opposing party slogging through diners in early-voting states and clashing in debate. This trip, in particular, reflects a Trump campaign strategy to showcase him in his presidential role during short, carefully managed trips that provide counter-programming to the Democrats’ primary contest and produce the kinds of visuals his campaign can use in future ads. His aides also believe the visit could help the president woo tens of thousands of Indian-American voters before the November election.
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The visit also comes at a crucial moment for Modi, a fellow populist, who has provided over a steep economic downturn and unfulfilled campaign promises about job creation. When Trump touches down in Delhi later on Monday, he will find a bustling, noisy, colorful capital that also is dotted with half-finished construction projects stalled due to disappearing funding.
The president will conclude his whirlwind visit to India on Tuesday with a day in the capital of New Delhi, including meetings with Modi over stalled trade talks and a gala dinner. The two nations are closely allied, in part to act as a bulwark against the rising influence of China. Trump announced at the stadium that India would soon buy $3 billion of American military equipment.
Trade tensions between the two countries have escalated since the Trump administration imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium from India. India responded with higher penalties on agricultural goods and restrictions on U.S. medical devices. The U.S. retaliated by removing India from a decades-old preferential trade program.
Alluding to tense trade negotiations, Trump voiced optimism that a deal could be reached but also lightheartedly told the rally crowd about Modi: “Everybody loves him, but I will tell you this. He’s very tough.”
Eyes will also be on whether Trump weighs on in the protests enveloping India over its Citizenship Amendment Act. It provides a fast track to naturalization for some migrants who entered the country illegally while fleeing religious persecution, but excludes Muslims, raising fears that the country is moving toward a religious citizenship test. Passage has prompted large-scale protests and a violent crackdown.
Trump has refrained from publicly rebuking world leaders for human rights abuses during his overseas trips. He made no specific mention of the citizenship debate during the rally, but included passing references to religious tolerance for all faiths, including Islam. He also specifically referred to the United States’ success combating “radical Islamic terrorism,” particularly originating from India’s longtime rival, Pakistan.
Sheikh Saaliq contributed reporting. Lemire reported from Delhi. Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.