AHMEDABAD, INDIA – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday delivered on his promised spectacle to welcome President Donald Trump, who kicked off his 36-hour trip to India with a colorful road tour that culminated in a rally that drew hundreds of thousands at 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 president's motorcade made its way to Sabarmati Ashram, one of Mahatma Gandhi’s residences that now 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 Indian prime minister. The president and First Lady Melania Trump are expected 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 opened his remarks to praise Modi for the "stunning display of India's culture and kindness," noting that he traveled 8,000 with the first lady to deliver a message to 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 hats typically seen at Trump rallies. Signs highlighting their friendship ringed the stadium: "One momentous occasion. Two dynamic leaders," one read.
Rishi Sharma, a 20-year-old university student from Ahmedabad, said she follows Trump on Twitter but to see him speak in person is a "great honor."
"People over here think that he's really powerful," Sharma said about Trump's appeal in India. "In India, there's a culture where like everyone wants to go to the U.S. for career or for higher studies."
The president used most of his welcome rally not to boast about his own economic record - but to tout that of Modi's. He praised his Indian counterpart as an "exceptional leader," adding that his rise from a chaiwalla, or tea-seller, to the leader of the country "underscores the limitless promise of this nation."
The U.S. has sought to strengthen strategic ties with India in recent years 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 the two countries. Negotiators worked to try 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 ahead of the trip.
The U.S. wants more access to Indian markets on agricultural products and medical devices while India is aiming 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. He said he planned to make a "very very major - among the biggest ever - trade deals," but added talks were in "the early stages.
But Trump confirmed tomorrow's expected announcement of an arms deals worth over $3.5 billion for six Apache helicopters and 24 anti-submarine warfare helicopters.He declared he wanted the U.S. to be "India's premier defense partner" and the deal was a step toward that goal.
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Modi had promised Trump grandeur and adulation that the president has boasted about in recent days.
“We’re not treated very well by India, but I happen to like Prime Minister Modi a lot,” Trump told reporters Tuesday when asked about whether a trade deal might emerge. “And he told me we’ll have seven 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. While 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 India's 28 states..
Trump will cap off the first day of his diplomatic sprint by flying to Agra for a sunset tour of the Taj Mahal, the 17th-century mausoleum he once named a hotel and casino after in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
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 are investing in manufacturing in the U.S., according to a senior administration official.