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'Namaste Trump!' India's Modi Welcomes U.S. Leader With An Epic Party

Feb 23, 2020
Originally published on February 24, 2020 10:03 am

Updated at 9 a.m. ET

"America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people," President Trump told a cheering crowd of more than 100,000 people in India's huge Motera cricket stadium on Monday.

"From this day on, India will always hold a very special place in our hearts," Trump said. He referred to his host, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as "a man I am proud to call my true friend."

Despite some economic friction between their countries, Trump and Modi have fostered a warm personal friendship. And Modi evidently knows just how to greet the U.S. president when he drops in for a visit — with throngs of adoring fans. It was the second time the pair have basked in a campaign-like atmosphere together, after a similar scene played out during Modi's visit to the U.S. last year.

"Both of us understand that when leaders put their citizens first, we can forge strong and fair partnerships to build a safer and more prosperous world," Trump said.

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The president also noted the contributions and heritage of 4 million Indians who have immigrated to the U.S., saying, "They are truly spectacular people."

"Nearly 1 in 4 Indian Americans trace their roots right here in Gujarat," Trump said as the crowd cheered.

Calling for even stronger economic and cultural ties between the two countries, Trump sought to paint an enticing picture of the U.S. under his leadership.

"This is truly an exciting time in the United States," he said. "Our economy is booming like never before. Our people are prospering and spirits are soaring. There is tremendous love, tremendous like. We like and we love everybody."

Shortly after Trump and first lady Melania Trump touched down in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Modi's home state of Gujarat, they headed to a rally at the Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium, named for a key architect of independent India and billed as the largest cricket stadium in the world. Monday's celebration at the newly renovated facility was titled "Namaste Trump" — a nod to the similarly gargantuan "Howdy Modi" fete for the prime minister last fall at Houston's NRG Stadium.

Students in Mumbai draw the likenesses of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Trump ahead of the U.S. president's visit to India on Monday.
Indranil Mukherjee / AFP via Getty Images

People attending were handed white baseball caps with the words "Namaste" – hello, in Hindi — and "Trump," in orange letters, as they entered the stadium ahead of the event. Indian folk dancers performed to thumping music and flashing lights. Famous Bollywood singer Kailash Kher belted out popular Hindi songs.

Lawyer Kelly Dhruv, who was watching from the stadium's premium section facing the main stage, described the atmosphere as "like a concert but for political leaders."

Trump's daughter Ivanka walked in with India's foreign minister and shook hands with people in the front row as well as with India's controversial home minister, Amit Shah — the author of Hindu nationalist policies that have prompted widespread protests in recent months.

Then it was time for the main event. As Trump and Modi emerged onto the stage, the song "Macho Man" blasted through the stadium.

The rally also attracted members of Modi's party, business leaders and groups of schoolchildren. Pooja Jahani, a local Gujarati artist, brought a 5-foot-wide oil painting that depicts a map of India inside a map of the United States. She said it symbolizes how "the United States is in India's heart, and India is in the United States' heart."

Trump repeatedly drew cheers from crowd, particularly when he used Indian terms such as chaiwala -- the tea-selling job that Modi famously rose from to lead his country. Trump was applauded at least 57 times during his 27-minute speech, according to the official White House transcript of the event.

The U.S. president would be the first to tell you: He and Modi share a warm personal friendship. And Modi, as Trump's friend, evidently knows just how to greet the U.S. president when he drops in for a visit — with throngs of adoring fans.

For all the physical enormity of the event, though, expectations of Trump's two-day visit remain modest — even from Trump himself. The president has carefully downplayed the prospect of a major trade deal anytime soon.

"We will be making very, very major — among the biggest ever made — trade deals," Trump said Monday. But he added that the discussions are still in their early phases. And while Trump said he's optimistic about reaching an agreement, he said of Modi, "Except that he's a very tough negotiator."

The two countries enjoy a robust trading relationship, totaling more than $142 billion as of 2018, but as that relationship has grown, so too have the tensions between them. The U.S. runs a goods trade deficit with India that crested $23 billion last year alone, and the Trump administration has chafed at the tariffs protecting Indian markets from foreign competition as "the highest of any major economy."

"We're doing a very big trade deal with India. We'll have it. I don't know if it'll be done before the [U.S. presidential] election," Trump told reporters last week at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, "but we'll have a very big deal with India."

"We're not treated very well by India," Trump added, "but I happen to like Prime Minister Modi a lot."

The newly renovated Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad, billed as the largest cricket stadium in the world, is the centerpiece of President Trump's two-day visit to India, where the president and his wife, Melania, are getting feted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his home state of Gujarat.
Sam Panthaky / AFP via Getty Images

For Modi, in some ways, Ahmedabad makes for a logical choice to host the president. The city is the major population center of Gujarat state, where Modi served as chief minister from 2001 to 2014. Its booming development was one of the linchpins of his successful run for India's top political office.

At the same time, the setting recalls some bitter, bloody associations for Modi.

He was in office during a wave of anti-Muslim violence in the state in 2002, after a fire on a train left dozens of Hindu activists dead. The region was racked with riots, during which more than 1,000 Muslims are believed to have been killed.

Critics blamed Modi for intentionally failing to protect the religious minority during the unrest. The U.S., under President George W. Bush, even denied him a visa due to his "severe violations of religious freedom," and the American government effectively boycotted him until shortly before he became prime minister.

A special investigation ultimately exonerated Modi in 2013, around the same time Modi wrote a long blog post explaining that he was "shaken to the core" by the violence. But the violence in Gujarat continues to shadow his legacy.

So, too, have suspicions of anti-Muslim bias.

Modi's Hindu nationalist government last year pushed through Parliament a controversial law offering amnesty to undocumented migrants from three nearby Muslim-majority countries — so long as the applicants are religious minorities and not Muslim. The law has prompted nationwide demonstrations, some of which have devolved into deadly clashes between police and protesters.

Trump, for his part, has attracted similar criticism with his own rhetoric and administration policies. During his campaign, the president proposed a temporary ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S. — a campaign pledge that, after several attempts, ultimately became a Supreme Court-approved ban on travelers from about half a dozen countries, most of which are majority Muslim.

The pair of leaders didn't spend all their time in Gujarat. Trump also toured the Taj Mahal, in Uttar Pradesh state, before wrapping up his trip in New Delhi, where they are expected to deliver a joint statement Tuesday.

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