Trump hails Modi as ‘true friend’ as host faces backlash over ‘anti-Muslim’ citizenship law

Narendra Modi, hosting the US president, leads the crowd in chants of ‘namaste Trump’ and ‘long live India-US friendship’

Adam Withnall
Ahmedabad, India
Monday 24 February 2020 11:46 GMT
Donald Trump speaks about cricket during state visit to India

Donald Trump has praised India as “a democratic, peaceful country” and reaffirmed his close ties to “true friend” Narendra Modi at a huge stadium rally, even as his host faced a fierce public backlash over what critics call attempts to undermine the country’s secular constitution and marginalise its Muslim minority.

The brand new, 110,000-capacity Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad had barely emptied when news emerged that a police head constable had been killed in clashes in the capital, Delhi, as protests against Modi’s government threatened to overshadow Donald and Melania Trump’s maiden, two-day visit to the country.

In his speech on Monday, the US president emphasised the difference between India and China, the rival giant in Asia, saying the former’s economic growth was all the more remarkable because it was achieved “as a democratic country, a peaceful country, a tolerant country – as a great, free country”. This success, he said, made it “an example to every nation in the world”.

Mr Modi, hosting Mr Trump in his home state, led the crowd in chants of “namaste Trump” and “long live India-US friendship”, and hailed the event as a sign of a “far greater and closer relationship” between the two countries. He had earlier tweeted, as Mr Trump was about to land in India, a phrase in Hindi that translates as “the guest is God”.

While a steady stream of people walked out as Mr Trump spoke – some in the audience not understanding English – he also received big cheers for vowing to tackle “bloodthirsty Islamist terrorism” and when he lathered Mr Modi with praise, calling him a “tremendously successful leader”.

The Namaste Trump event was the biggest political rally that the US president has ever addressed, and the high point in spectacle of his and Ms Trump’s 36-hour stay, which also included a sunset visit to the Taj Mahal, the world-famous 17th-century monument to love.

With seats also laid out in rows across the pitch, Mr Trump claimed an audience of “125,000 beating hearts in this stadium”. By that stage in the speech, however, many of those seats had emptied.

After arriving in Air Force One on Monday afternoon, Mr Trump was warmly welcomed by Mr Modi, and then treated to a 22km “road show” of stages promoting India’s 28 states on the route to the stadium.

The Trumps also fitted in a quick stop at an ashram where Mahatma Gandhi lived for 13 years as he launched India’s independence movement. They were given prayer shawls and shown the workings of a cotton loom, a symbol of Gandhi’s humble life, and Mr Trump signed a message in the guest book, addressed ”to my great friend Prime Minister Modi”.

The US president may have felt let down by the mere tens of thousands who lined the road-show route to greet him – he had repeatedly claimed in the run-up to this trip that he would be met by millions – but he cannot have been disappointed by the roar that greeted him as he took to the stage in the Motera stadium. The crowd had been warmed up with “Macho Man” by the Village People booming out over the sound system, as well as a medley of Elton John songs.

On stage, Mr Trump and Mr Modi exchanged a bear-hug before waving to the crowd, after which the national anthems of both countries were played.

Forced to stick to his script, with the speech translated into Hindi on screens behind him, Mr Trump stuck mainly to safe, crowd-pleasing topics. He brought up cricket – although mispronouncing the name of Indian legend Sachin Tendulkar – Bollywood, and the “profound honour” of inaugurating the pristine stadium.

“Melania and my family will always remember this remarkable hospitality… From this day on, India will always hold a very special place in our hearts,” Mr Trump said.

His visit comes at a difficult time for Mr Modi, however, who is facing a national protest that began in mid-December as a backlash against new laws granting a route to citizenship for refugees of every major South Asian religion – except Muslims. Following the decision to revoke Muslim-majority Kashmir’s autonomy, and to build a Hindu temple on the site of the demolished Babri Masjid mosque, the legislation has provoked outrage among Muslims and supporters of India’s secular origins alike.

In Delhi, those protests boiled over on Monday, with hundreds of protesters and supporters of the new laws clashing in the streets, throwing stones and setting fires. Police confirmed that one officer was killed during the violence.

White House officials have said the president will raise US concerns about religious freedom and authoritarianism during his trip, but there was no overt criticism to be found in Mr Trump’s address at the stadium.

Mr Trump said his host, who rose to be prime minister from humble beginnings as the son of a tea seller, was “living proof that with hard work and devotion, Indians can accomplish anything they want”. “Everybody loves him – but I will tell you this, he’s very tough,” he said of Modi.

With supportive audience members bussed in from many miles away to back Mr Modi and give Mr Trump the welcome he craved, the lack of criticism on the platform was perhaps unsurprising.

Renju, 42, told The Independent that she had left her home in neighbouring Kerala state at 7am to be there for the afternoon rally and to “support Trump and Modi”.

She praised Mr Modi – “one of the best leaders we have ever witnessed” – and, on comparisons between him and Mr Trump, she said: “They are both daring, courageous leaders. Both are fighting against terrorism – that is the best thing.”

Vijesh Panicker, 32, works for the US company TTec in Ahmedabad. He said the city was “so glad and proud to have this fantastic stadium”, as well as being “excited to welcome Trump on his first visit to India”.

Mr Panicker said he liked Mr Trump because he was “a different personality compared with past [US] leaders”. “I think he is better than Obama – he is certainly more famous. He appeared in the [WWE] wrestling on TV! And Trump is very fond of Modi, so hopefully we can have better ties and better trade in future because of this.”

Unsurprisingly for a rally like this, it was hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about either leader. Manoj Kumar, 50, said he was attending in traditional dress to represent his community, a group of Keralan migrants based in Ahmedabad. He only found out about his invitation a week ago, when he and other members of the Ahmedabad Kerala Samajan were “told to be here”.

He said both Mr Trump and Mr Modi were “charismatic in nature… truly global leaders”. “This [event] is not just a celebration, it is the beginning of a bilateral relationship that can benefit all countries in the world,” he said.

Asked about potentially awkward comments made last week by Mr Trump – that India had “treated us very badly” on trade – Mr Kumar said: “There are certain things I cannot comment on. This is a political issue – please just ask general questions.”

Mr Modi and Mr Trump’s speeches lasted well under an hour combined – brief, arguably, considering the estimated £11m India has spent preparing just for this leg of the trip.

I think [Trump] is better than Obama – he is certainly more famous. He appeared in the [WWE] wrestling on TV! 

Vijesh Panicker

After Ahmedabad, the Trumps were scheduled to fly on to Agra where they will visit the Taj Mahal.

High-level talks will then be held throughout the day in Delhi on Tuesday, as long as plans are not derailed by the violent protests. The Trumps will then be treated to a state dinner with India’s president, Ram Nath Kovind, before they fly out from Delhi.

Not so long ago, there had been high hopes that the talks would herald a major trade pact to reduce tariffs, in addition to some multi-billion-dollar Indian acquisitions of US defence equipment. On stage, Mr Trump confirmed that a deal to sell $3bn of military equipment, including all-purpose helicopters, would be signed in Delhi.

Both sides have since said that a broad breakthrough on trade is unlikely, but the talks are still supposed to emphasise a growing strategic partnership between the two nations.

Dr Jagannath Panda, a research fellow at the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, said the US and India were natural allies with a shared goal to stem China’s rising dominance in Asia.

“Building credible partnerships… [with] pro-democratic regimes across the region becomes a strategic necessity, and the US will certainly need India on such a mission more than any other power in the region,” he said.

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