Trump dazzled by 'stunning display of India's culture and kindness' at welcome rally

Courtney Subramanian, USA TODAY

AHMEDABAD, India – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered on his promised spectacle to welcome President Donald Trump, who kicked off his 36-hour trip to India on Monday with a colorful road tour that culminated in a rally that drew tens of thousands to the world's largest cricket stadium. 

The stadium in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Modi's home state of Gujarat, was nearly at capacity as the president touched down late Monday morning. Outside the airport, dancers clad in vibrant-colored clothing performed as the president's motorcade made its way to Sabarmati Ashram, one of Mahatma Gandhi’s residences that hosts a museum.

More than 100,000 people poured into the brand new stadium for “Namaste Trump," an event designed to reciprocate last fall’s Texas “Howdy Modi” rally that drew 50,000 Indian Americans to greet the prime minister. The president and first lady Melania Trump are to be feted in a whirlwind, two-day diplomatic display aimed at highlighting U.S.-Indian relations amid escalating trade frictions between the two countries. 

Trump praised Modi for the "stunning display of India's culture and kindness," noting that he traveled 8,000 miles with the first lady to deliver a message to the people of India. 

"America loves India, America respects India and America will always be faithful and loyal to the Indian people," he said as the crowd erupted in cheers. 

Inside the stadium, a sea of white hats emblazoned with the U.S. and Indian flags and the Namaste Trump logo replaced the trademark red caps typically seen at Trump rallies. Signs highlighting friendship ringed the stadium: "One momentous occasion. Two dynamic leaders," one read. 

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump disembark from Air Force One in Ahmedabad, India, on Feb. 24.

Rishi Sharma, 20, a university student from Ahmedabad, said she follows Trump on Twitter, but to see him speak in person was a "great honor." 

"People over here think that he's really powerful," Sharma said. "In India, there's a culture where like everyone wants to go to the U.S. for career or for higher studies."

The president and first lady flew to Agra for a sunset tour of the Taj Mahal, the white marble mausoleum built in the 17th century by an emperor as a shrine of eternal love for his favorite wife. 

"It’s incredible, truly incredible," said the president, who named an Atlantic City hotel and casino after the mausoleum.

Melania Trump added, "Lovely, beautiful."

During the trip to the Taj Mahal, Trump said the reception at the cricket stadium "was fantastic," and "they worked really hard."

The president used most of his welcome rally not to boast about his own economic record but to tout Modi's. He praised his Indian counterpart as an "exceptional leader." Modi's rise from a chaiwalla, or tea seller, to the leader of the country "underscores the limitless promise of this nation," Trump said.

The United States has sought to strengthen strategic ties with India as it looks to counter China’s rise, and Trump’s trip is the latest signal in a greater strategic convergence, according to Milan Vaishnav, the head of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Despite all the differences, the ratcheting up of diplomatic and military attention to strategies that could counter Chinese expansionism is something that’s been pretty consistent," he said.  

The trip comes amid a tit-for-tat trade dispute between India and the United States. Negotiators tried to secure a deal before Trump's visit, but talks fizzled over India’s protectionist policies and a scope of differences including e-commerce and digital trade, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters before the trip. 

The United States wants more access to Indian markets for agricultural products and medical devices while India aims to restore its preferential status in a trade program for developing countries.

Trump said he planned to continue trade discussions with Modi during his visit, calling the prime minister a "tough" negotiator.

"I am in no rush," Trump said after the rally. "We are doing well with India, we are making deals."

Trump confirmed an arms deal worth more than $3.5 billion for six Apache helicopters and 24 anti-submarine helicopters. He declared he wanted the United States to be "India's premier defense partner" and the deal was a step toward that goal.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump visit a Gandhi museum in Ahmedabad, India, on Feb. 24.

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Modi promised Trump grandeur and adulation that the president boasted about.

"We’re not treated very well by India, but I happen to like Prime Minister Modi a lot," Trump said last Tuesday when asked whether a trade deal might emerge. "And he told me we’ll have 7 million people between the airport and the event."

That number jumped to 10 million by Thursday, when Trump again mentioned the upcoming “Namaste Trump” event at a rally in Colorado. Though Trump’s estimate is millions more than that city’s population, tens of thousands of people turned out for the president's colorful welcome. City officials erected 28 stages along the 14-mile route stretching from the airport to the stadium, featuring performances by artists to showcase different regions around India. 

In New Delhi on Tuesday, Trump will participate in ceremonial events, hold a meet-and-greet with U.S. Embassy staffers and attend an event with Indian investors focused on companies that invest in manufacturing in the USA, according to a senior administration official.

President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi walk around NRG Stadium waving to the crowd during the "Howdy Modi: Shared Dreams, Bright Futures" event, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Houston.

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Though Monday marks the president’s first official visit, Trump has maintained strong business ties to India through several luxury properties owned by the Trump Organization. Outside North America, the Trump Organization holds the largest portfolio of real estate projects in India, according to Donald Trump Jr. That could be part of the reason for the president’s popularity in India compared with his divided approval ratings back home. About 56% of Indians approve of Trump’s foreign policies, according to the Pew Research Center, a figure that has quadrupled since he took office.

The high-profile trip gives Trump a chance to look presidential on the world stage as he ramps up his reelection campaign. With an eye on November’s election, Trump called out the 4 million Indian Americans in the USA  who "enrich every aspect of our national life." The group is historically a reliable Democratic constituency.

Modi faces mounting pressure over an economic slowdown, a security crackdown in Kashmir and protests over his Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu-nationalist agenda, including a controversial new citizenship law that excludes Muslims.

During his remarks, Trump described India as a place "where millions upon millions of Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Jews worship side by side in harmony."

"India is a country that proudly embraces freedom, liberty, individual rights, the rule of law and the dignity of every human being," he said. 

Indian folk dancers rehearse their performance next to a billboard featuring Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump at the airport in Agra, India, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020.

Trump will join Modi and other Indian officials for a state dinner Tuesday night at the presidential palace before returning to Washington on an overnight flight. The nearly 36-hour trip is the shortest a U.S. president has taken to India since President Richard Nixon’s 22-hour stay in 1969.

Trump is the seventh president to make the trip to India but the first to enjoy an arena full of support. 

Contributing: David Jackson

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump India visit: President gives speech for 'Namaste Trump'