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

Adam Withnall
President Donald Trump shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi during 'Namaste Trump' rally: AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump praised India as “a democratic, peaceful country” and reaffirmed his close ties to “true friend” Narendra Modi at a huge stadium rally on Monday, 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 Modera Stadium in Ahmedabad had barely emptied when the news emerged that a police head constable was 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, the US president emphasised the difference between India and China, its 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 their two countries. He had earlier tweeted, as Mr Trump was about to land in India, a phrase in Hindi that translates to “the guest is God”.

And while a steady stream of people walked out as Mr Trump spoke second - many here will not understand English - he received big cheers for vowing to tackle “blood-thirsty 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 the US president has ever addressed, the high point in spectacle of his and Melania Trump’s 36-hour stay that 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, though, many of those seats had emptied.

After arriving in Air Force One on Monday afternoon, Mr Trump was warmly welcomed by his host, prime minister Modi, and then treated to a 22km “road show” of stages promoting India’s 28 states along 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. Donald and Melania were given prayer shawls and shown the workings of a cotton loom, a symbol of Gandhi’s humble life, and the president 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 has repeatedly claimed leading up to this trip that he would be met by multiple millions - but he cannot have been disappointed by the roar that greeted him as he took the stage in the Modera stadium. The crowd had been warmed up by “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 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 - though mispronouncing the name of Indian legend Sachin Tendulkar - Bollywood, and his “profound honour” to inaugurate 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.

But Mr Trump’s visit also comes at a difficult time for Mr Modi, facing a national protest crisis that began in mid-December as a backlash to 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, it 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 Modi's new citizenship laws clashes on the street, throwing stones and setting fires. Police confirmed 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 comments to the crowd today.

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, perhaps the lack of criticism on this platform was unsurprising.

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

She gushed over 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 (about them).”

Vijesh Panicker, 32, works for the American company TeleTech 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”.

Panicker said he liked Mr Trump because he was “a different personality compared to 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 found 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 invite 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 has “treated us very badly” on trade - Kumar said: “There are certain things I cannot comment on. This is a political issue, please just ask general questions.”

Combined, Mr Modi and Mr Trump’s speeches lasted well under an hour - arguably brief, 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, the world-famous 17th century monument to love.

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 the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, before they fly out from Delhi.

Not so long ago there had been high hopes that the talks could herald a major trade pact to reduce tariffs, in addition to some multi-billion-dollar Indian acquisitions of American defence equipment. On stage, Mr Trump confirmed 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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