America loves India: Donald Trump hails ‘faithful friends’ at mass rally

By Jill Colvin and Jonathan Lemire,AP

India poured on the pageantry with a joyful, colourful welcome for US President Donald Trump that kicked off a whirlwind 36-hour visit.

More than 100,000 people packed into the world’s largest cricket stadium, giving Mr Trump the biggest rally crowd of his political career.

Earlier, Mr Trump visited a former home of independence leader Mohandas Gandhi, and capped his whirlwind day with a sunset tour of India’s 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 Mr Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

But miles away in the capital of New Delhi, Indian police used tear gas and smoke grenades to disperse a crowd of clashing protesters hours before Mr Trump was due to arrive, as violence broke out over a new citizenship law that excludes Muslims.

Anti-Trump street demonstrations also erupted in Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Gauhati, but not in the city where Mr Trump was welcomed to India.

US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Alex Brandon/AP)
Donald Trump hailed US-Indian relations (Alex Brandon/AP)

Mr Trump opened his speech by declaring that he travelled 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”.

Mr Trump basked in the raucous reception that has eluded him on many foreign trips, some of which have featured massive protests. In India, he instead received a warm embrace – literally – from the ideologically aligned Mr Modi.

The sun-baked city of Ahmedabad bustled as Mr Trump arrived, as the streets teemed with people eager to catch a glimpse of the American president. Newly cleaned streets 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 Mr Trump speculated would be on hand.

His first stop was Gandhi’s home, where Mr Trump donned a prayer shawl and took off his shoes before 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 the mega-rally.

Mr Trump’s motorcade travelled amid cheers from carefully picked and vetted Modi loyalists and workers from his Bharatiya Janata Party who stood for hours alongside the 14-mile stretch of road to give the president a grand welcome. Tens of thousands of police officers were on hand to keep security tight and a new wall was built in front of a slum, apparently to hide it from presidential passers-by.

On the way to the stadium, Mr Trump’s motorcade crossed over a river where a barge was emblazoned with his name and onlookers chanted “Modi!”.

The stadium was packed with revellers, many of whom sported Trump and Modi masks, as they sat in 80-degree temperatures.

Visiting a former home of Ghandi (Alex Brandon/AP)
More than 100,000 people gathered to greet the president (Alex Brandon/AP)

Mr Trump lavished praise on both Mr 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.”

Donald Trump and Melania Trump visit the Taj Mahal, the 17th century monument to love in Agra, India (Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP)

Mr Trump’s foreign visits have typically been light on sightseeing, but this time the president and Mrs Trump also visited the Taj Mahal.

As Mr Trump walked from the iconic 17th century mausoleum, he told reporters that is was an “incredible place”.

On his flight to Agra, mR Trump told reporters on Air Force One that he had never been to the Unesco world heritage site before.

He and first lady Melania Trump toured the white marble structure just as the sun was beginning to set.

On the way from the airport, crowds waved tiny Indian and US flags.

Larger-than-life sized cutouts of Mr Trump and Mr Modi were erected along the route.

Air Force One landed at an airport in Agra where Mr Trump and his entourage walked along a red carpet on the tarmac and applauded dancers in feathered costumes.

One the greeters spun a plate full of fragrant flower petals, dispersing them to the ground.

The visit comes at a crucial moment for Mr Modi, a fellow populist, who has presided over a steep economic downturn and unfulfilled campaign promises about job creation.

Mr Trump will on Tuesday conclude his visit to India with a day in New Delhi, complete with a gala dinner and meetings with Mr Modi over stalled trade talks between the two nations.