Wed | Apr 1, 2020

Trump’s India visit prioritises pageantry over policy

Published:Tuesday | February 25, 2020 | 12:20 AM
US President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrive for a ‘Namaste Trump’ event at Sardar Patel Stadium yesterday. After Air Force One touched down in Ahmedabad in western India, Trump’s motorcade slowly drove down streets lined with hundreds of thousands of onlookers.


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 then 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 travelled 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. And yet, he emphasised his own administration’s efforts to secure its borders and crack down on “radical Islamic terrorism”.

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 ­travelled newly cleaned roads planted with flowers and featuring elaborately costumed dancers and musicians, as well as hundreds large of billboards featuring the president, Modi and first lady Melania Trump. Tens of thousands lined the route, making an impressive showing, but well short of the over-the-top prediction of up to 10 million that Trump had said Modi promised him 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, which had the feel of a carnival. Tens of thousands of police officers were also on hand to keep security tight, and a new wall was erected in front of a slum, apparently to hide it from the ­president’s motorcade.

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. Trump lavished praise on both Modi and the democracy he leads, highlighting an effort to lift residents out of extreme poverty.

“India gives hope to all of humanity,” he told the crowd.

The stadium was packed with revelers, many of whom wore Trump and Modi masks as they sat in 80-degree heat. Yet scores of attendees, particularly those sitting in the sun, streamed out before Trump had finished his 27-minute speech.

Before he arrived, the crowd listened to a medley of Bollywood hits and songs from Trump’s usual campaign rally playlist, including Elton John numbers that seemed to puzzle some in the chanting, colorful crowd.

Trump, whose foreign visits typically are light on sightseeing, told reporters travelling with him that he was eager to see the Taj Mahal, which he’d never visited, and later delighted in the immense white marble 17th century mausoleum in the city of Agra.

As daylight began to fade, Trump and his wife posed for photos, including some in front of the iconic bench where Princess Diana sat alone in 1992 in what became an enduring image.

“Really incredible, an incredible place,” Trump told reporters as he stood in the structure’s shadow.