Political News

Trump lands in India and feels the love

Posted February 24, 2020 1:48 a.m. EST
Updated February 24, 2020 4:41 a.m. EST

— President Donald Trump touched down in India on Monday ready to feel the love.

He was promised crowds -- big ones -- by his charismatic but increasingly nationalistic counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who greeted Trump upon arrival with a hug.

And while a major trade agreement seems unlikely on this trip, Trump was more than happy to bask in the type of massive crowds that don't typically congregate when he travels abroad (except to protest him).

Trump's optics-heavy official visit began at the elaborate "Namaste Trump" rally in the world's largest cricket stadium, held in Modi's home state. A massive throng, all wearing white caps, cheered eagerly as Trump praised Indian democracy, Modi and Bollywood.

Trump made some veiled nudges toward maintaining India's historic status as a pluralistic society, which will be viewed in the context of Modi's recent moves that some fear could strip Muslim's of their citizenship.

"Your nation has always been admired around the earth as the place where millions upon millions of Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Jains worship side by side in harmony," Trump said.

But the US president also offered a robust defense of using immigration controls to prevent what he calls "radical Islamic terrorism," bolstering some of Modi's hardline views.

"Every nation has the right to secure and controlled borders," he said. "The United States and India are committed to working together to stop terrorists and fight their ideology."

Trump peppered his speech with applause lines, guaranteeing his crowd roared with approval when he named famous Indian cricketers or listed the titles of a few Bollywood films.

He mounted praise on Modi, calling him a "true friend" and an "exceptional leader" whose rise to leadership as the son of a tea seller was an example of the country's "limitless potential."

The whole event took on the atmosphere of one of Trump's political rallies, complete with the Elton John playlist. And that, aides say, is what Trump was looking for when he agreed to travel 8,000 miles for a night in India: an uproarious reception and the biggest crowd he's ever drawn.

Before arriving in the throngs, Trump visited the Ashram where Mahatma Gandhi, the father of Indian independence, lived from 1917-1930. He's planning to take in the sunset from the Taj Mahal later.

When he emerged from Air Force One, Trump and Modi embraced while traditional folk music from Gujarat state -- complete with blowing conch shells and persistent drumming -- began echoing. Women with rainbow flower strands stacked atop their headdresses danced to the rhythm.

At Gandhi's Ashram, Trump and first lady Melania Trump -- who removed their shoes for the tour -- viewed a traditional charkha spinning wheel, closely associated with Gandhi that came to represent self-sufficiency during the non-cooperation movement. After, Modi unveiled three marble statuettes, about a foot tall, of monkeys making the "speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil" motions as a gift.

"To my great friend, thank you for this wonderful visit," Trump wrote in the site's guest book.

Before he arrived, Trump placed his expected crowd count for his "Namaste Trump" rally in the range of 6 to 10 million, but given the city's population of 8 million and the stadium's capacity of 110,000, those figures seemed high.

Whatever the final number, the crowd was massive, including along Trump's motorcade route, where thousands of hand-selected members of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party welcomed him into Ahmedabad in India's northwest.

Trump will spend several hours with Modi, whom he describes as a friend. There are plenty of surface-level similarities between the men, like a penchant for populist nationalism and ardent followings. But their backgrounds differ vastly and they hold divergent economic views.

Trump is generally a reluctant traveler and the trip to India takes him away from the White House for only a night.

"That's not too much," he said on Sunday.

The real work takes place Tuesday, when Trump and Modi are expected to haggle over a festering trade dispute and discuss security-related matters.

On trade, Trump has insisted that US trade deficits be reduced and has used harsh tactics like tariffs to achieve his goals. After he applied stiff new tariffs on steel and aluminum, India responded by placing new duties on medical devices and farm products. The US then stripped India of special trade status meant for developing countries.

Trump has all but ruled out striking a grand trade deal on this trip. But some type of trade truce seemed likely, or at least some agreement between the two countries to work toward resolving their differences.

US administration officials also say Trump plans to confront Modi over troubling steps that amount to Democratic backsliding, like a new law that denies citizenship to Muslims. And Trump's offer still stands to help mediate an ongoing dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, though Modi has essentially rejected his overtures.

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