“India is a country that proudly embraces freedom, liberty, individual rights, the rule of law and the dignity of every human being,” Trump said. “Your nation has always been admired around the Earth as the place where millions upon millions of Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Jews worship side by side in harmony; where you speak more than 100 languages and come from more than two dozen states, yet you have always stood strong as one great Indian nation. Your unity is an inspiration to the world.”
Trump returned to the theme repeatedly but did not mention Modi’s controversial citizenship law that passed in December or the state of emergency that his Hindu nationalist government imposed on Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state.
The references to India’s democratic political system and diversity were apparently meant to air U.S. concerns without publicly criticizing Trump’s host, who beamed nearby. In the run-up to the trip, a senior White House official said Trump would raise the issue of religious freedom with Modi in private. The decision not to discuss it publicly repeats a pattern of Trump rarely addressing human rights while abroad.
The Modi government has faced considerable international criticism, including from Republicans in Congress, over its crackdown in Kashmir. And the religion-based citizenship law has led to protests nationwide. On Monday, even as Trump was on his way to New Delhi, violence erupted in the country’s capital between supporters and opponents of the law, leaving two dead.
The new law gives undocumented immigrants of six religions a fast-track path to citizenship but excludes Islam — a faith that 200 million Indian citizens practice. Last week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government body whose leaders are appointed by the president and top lawmakers, called the law a “significant downward turn in religious freedom in India.”
Modi, whose critics call his Hindu nationalism discriminatory, hit the same inclusive theme as he welcomed Trump.
“You are in an India that is full of diversity, where hundreds of languages are spoken and where there are hundreds of kinds of attire, several kinds of cuisine, several religions and communities,” Modi told his guest. “This rich diversity of ours, unity and diversity and the vibrancy of unity, is our very strong foundation for the relations between India and America.”
The president’s quick trip is long on symbolism and short on substance, although Trump announced new military sales. The trade agreement that he said would be ready last year may now wait until after the U.S. presidential election. Trump said Monday that it is in the “early stages of discussion.”
On the first day of the 36-hour visit, the president and first lady Melania Trump toured an ashram where Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, the father of modern India, once lived, and later the Taj Mahal, uncharacteristically emptied of tourists and glowing in the late-day light.
“Really incredible, an incredible place,” Trump remarked to reporters about the 17th-century white marble mausoleum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Although half a world away from home, the “Namaste Trump” rally — the centerpiece of his visit to India, which also included meetings in the nation’s capital — had familiar traces of the president’s campaign rallies.
Instead of red “Make America Great Again” hats, the attendees at Motera Stadium wore white caps emblazoned with the event’s name and the two countries’ flags. Trump’s signature walk-off theme song, the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” played as the event concluded.
Outside the stadium, Trump’s motorcade passed a marching band on camels and huge posters depicting him and Modi, along with a hastily built barrier meant to camouflage a sprawling slum.
Inside, Trump paid tribute to India’s economic rise, which includes a rapidly expanding middle class and a decline in extreme poverty.
He devoted part of his 27-minute remarks to the U.S. economy (“booming like never before”) and America’s military might (“now stronger than ever before”), other fixtures of his domestic campaign speeches.
He claimed that 125,000 people were packed into the brand-new facility and that millions were witnessing the display of friendship. The cricket stadium, the largest in the world, seats 110,000 people, and organizers added seating for several thousand on the field where cricket will be played. Nearly all the sections were full when Trump and Modi arrived to loud cheers, preceded by the strains of the song “Macho Man” by the Village People.
Ahead of his visit, Trump said he expected as many as 10 million people to line the streets for his arrival, an exaggeration even in a country of 1.3 billion people.
“It is your faith in the strength of a free society, your confidence in your own people, your trust in your own citizens and your respect for the dignity of every person that makes the United States and India such a natural, beautiful, enduring friendship,” the president said.
He appeared to depart from prepared remarks only twice, both times to praise Modi as a “tough” negotiator.
Few expected the leaders to sign a trade deal during Trump’s visit, and the two nations had ratcheted up trade tensions last year as the United States ended preferential trade privileges for India, which responded by imposing retaliatory tariffs on agricultural products.
“I am optimistic that working together, the prime minister and I can reach a fantastic deal that is good and even great for both of our countries,” Trump said. “Except that he’s a very tough negotiator.”
Trump spent part of his speech focused on immigration and border security, proclaiming that “our borders will always be closed to terrorists, terrorism and any form of extremism” and that the United States aggressively screens foreigners seeking entry.
He noted that his administration has been cooperating with Pakistan “in a very positive way” in targeting the “terrorist organizations and militants that operate on the Pakistani border.”
The crowd applauded loudly for that disapproving reference to Pakistan, India’s neighbor and bitter adversary, but had no discernible praise for his remark that the United States also maintains a “very good” relationship with Pakistan.
Trump is not visiting Pakistan on this trip, breaking with tradition for most senior U.S. officials who have made a point of not appearing to show favoritism. Trump hosted Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House last year, and angered Modi by saying that the Indian leader had broached the possibility of having Trump help mediate the nations’ dispute over Kashmir.
In his remarks Monday, Trump said India should play a leadership role in calming regional tensions, and left it there.
“Every nation has the right to secure and control borders,” he said. “The United States and India are committed to working together to stop terrorists and to fight their ideology.”
Yet the issue of immigration has been sensitive for Indians seeking to come to the United States, as the Trump administration has cracked down on employer-based immigration programs that traditionally benefit large numbers of Indian professionals and their spouses.
Trump said Monday that the United States and India were poised to sign an agreement to sell $3 billion worth of U.S. military helicopters to the Indian armed forces as he touted a “critical partnership” between the two countries. It may be the most substantive policy announcement of his visit. U.S. officials approved the deal last year, and the Indian cabinet did the same last week.
Last fall, the United States and India held their first joint military exercises in the air, on land and at sea, called “Tiger Triumph,” which Trump touted as “something to behold.”
Trump drew the loudest cheers from Monday’s audience when he paid homage to uniquely Indian phenomena: Bollywood movies, cricket stars and the world’s tallest statue. The crowd clapped encouragement as he struggled with names and words in Hindi, including the name of a famous sage, Swami Vivekananda. The president’s rendition omitted a few syllables.
As the crowd filed out of the stadium, there was little sense that Modi and Trump are polarizing figures who inspire intense opposition. The fact that Trump had traveled to India, then lavished extravagant praise on the country and its leader, was a source of pride for many. They also reveled in the stadium where the event was held.
Foram Bhavsar, 45, a doctor who lives in Ahmedabad, loved the fact that Trump referred in his speech to Indian festivals such as Diwali and Holi. She said that she had seen Modi speak many times but that she never expected to see Trump in her hometown. “This is a lifetime memorable moment,” she said. “Perhaps we will never see this another time.”
Slater reported from Ahmedabad.