AHMEDABAD, INDIA (AP) — India poured on the pageantry with a joyful, colorful welcome for President Donald Trump on Monday that kicked off a whirlwind 36-hour visit meant to reaffirm U.S.-India ties while providing enviable overseas imagery for a president in a re-election year.
More than 100,000 people packed into the world's largest cricket stadium, giving Trump the biggest rally crowd of his political career, for the pinnacle of the day's trio of presidential photo-ops. Trump visited a former home of independence leader Mohandas Gandhi and he also planned to tour 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 Trump and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Trump opened his speech by declaring that he 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 soldiers on camels, a mix of songs from Bollywood hits and Trump's campaign rally playlist, including an Elton John hit 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 hugger Modi.
The sun-baked city of Ahmedabad bustled as Trump arrived, as the streets teemed 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 took off 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 over 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 temperatures. 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.”
“Your nation is doing so well, we are very very proud of India," he said. “The story of the Indian nation is a tale of astounding progress."
Trump’s foreign visits have typically been light on sightseeing, but this time, the president and first lady are to visit the Taj Mahal. 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.
The visit also comes at a crucial moment for Modi,
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.
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 on Tuesday will conclude his whirlwind visit to India with a day in the capital, complete with a gala dinner meetings with Modi over stalled trade talks between the two nations. The two nations are closely allied, in part to act as a bulwark against the rising influence of nearby China, but 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.
Perhaps alluding to tough negotiations over trade, Trump lightheartedly told the rally crowd: “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.
Typically, Trump has not publicly rebuked world leaders for human rights abuses during his overseas trips. But one senior administration official said the U.S. is concerned about the situation and that Trump will tell Modi the world is looking to India to continue to uphold its democratic traditions and respect religious minorities.