AHMEDABAD: Prioritising pageantry over policy, President Donald Trump basked in India’s welcoming embrace on a day that featured a mega-rally with cheering crowds, a mutual admiration show with his counterpart and a sunset tour of the famed Taj Mahal.
Trump used Day One of his whirlwind 36-hour visit to India to reaffirm close ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and tease progress on a trade deal down the road. But the day was largely devoted to a trio of enviable photo-ops: the largest rally of Trump’s presidency sandwiched between visits to a former home of independence leader Mohandas Gandhi and the Taj Mahal.
In his first hours on the subcontinent, Trump received the adulatory reception that has eluded him on many foreign trips. More than 100,000 people packed the world’s largest cricket stadium, nearly all of them wearing white caps with the name of the event, Namaste, Trump.
But miles away in the capital of New Delhi, police used tear gas and smoke grenades to disperse a crowd of clashing protesters hours before Trump was due to arrive, as violence broke out over a new citizenship law that excludes Muslims. Anti-Trump street demonstrations also erupted in Kolkata, Hyderabad and Gauhati.
Trump opened his rally speech in Ahmedabad on Monday by declaring that he had traveled 8,000 miles to deliver the message that America loves India, America respects India and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.
He praised India as a place where different faiths worship side by side in harmony and made no mention of the new law that is raising fears that the country is moving towards a religious citizenship test.
The sun-baked city bustled around him, its streets teeming with people eager to catch a glimpse of the American president. The president’s motorcade traveled newly cleaned roads planted with flowers and featuring hundreds of billboards showing the president and first lady Melania Trump. Tens of thousands lined the route, well short of the over-the-top prediction of up to 10 million that Trump had speculated would be on hand.
His first stop was Gandhi’s home, where Trump donned a prayer shawl and removed his shoes to walk through the humble ashram. He inspected the spinning wheel used by the famed pacifist and saw a statue of monkeys representing Gandhi’s mantra of “See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil.” Then it was on to a far more boisterous setting: the mega-rally at the world’s largest cricket stadium.
A battery of carefully chosen Modi loyalists and workers from his Bharatiya Janata Party lined the road to accord the president a grand welcome. Tens of thousands of police officers were on hand to keep security tight and a new wall was erected in front of a slum, apparently to hide it from presidential passers-by.
On the way to the stadium, Trump’s motorcade crossed a river where a barge was emblazoned with TRUMP” and onlookers chanted Modi! Modi, a noted hugger, figuratively and literally embraced Trump at the start of the Namaste Trump rally that was, in a way, the back half of home-and-away events for the two men. Both had attended a Howdy Modi rally in Houston last year that drew 50,000 people.
Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2020