Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 April 2020

Fanfare for President Trump on first official visit to India

Donald Trump announced a $3 billion deal with the Indian Armed Forces and hinted at a "very major" trade deal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed US President Donald Trump to his home state, meeting him on the tarmac of the Ahmedabad airport on Monday, starting a two-day visit aimed at recalibrating ties between the two nations amid a simmering trade war.

Mr Trump's first official visit to India began with a large rally in Mr Modi's home state, dubbed "Namaste Trump," the event attracted a crowd of more than 125,000 people. The pair both addressed the large audience at the newly built world's biggest cricket stadium near Ahmedabad city.

The event was a similar show of bonhomie between the two leaders as last year's "Howdy Modi" event in Houston.

In his address, Mr Trump announced a $3 billion deal for military helicopters that would be sold to the Indian Armed Forces, stating “the United States should be India’s premier defence partner.”

“We will be making very, very major, among the biggest ever made, trade deals," he told the those gathered at the event.

Mr Trump went on to say “the United States and India are also firmly united in our ironclad resolve to defend our citizens from the threat of radical Islamic terrorism.” He said that the “ISIS territorial caliphate has been 100 per cent destroyed.”

ISIS continues to operate in pockets in Iraq and Syria as the group attempts to rebuild its extremist caliphate, and has been referenced by terror attackers as in influence in both India and the US.

Trump added that he is working “in a positive way” with Pakistan to crack down on terrorist organisations along the Pakistan border, to which the crowd erupted in applause.

Mr Trump went on to praise India’s improving infrastructure, “every village in India now has access to electricity," he said. "More Indians are right now connected to the internet."

The rapid expansion of electricity and telecommunications services across India has played a role in the country’s deadly fake news problem. Misinformation spread through WhatsApp in India has prompted mobs and lynching fuelled by false messages used to inflame divisions among the country’s population. At least 33 deaths in India have been linked to WhatsApp rumours, according to analysis by data journalists at IndiaSpend.

In his own address, Mr Modi commended Trump and his family for visiting India, saying “what you’re doing for children in your society is praiseworthy.”

The comment comes as Trump is facing harsh criticisms of his immigration policy that is forcibly separating families seeking to enter the US, and detaining migrant children in jail-like conditions. At least six migrant children have died in the custody of American immigration officials.

Both the populist politicians have displayed a close rapport with each other and have met four times in the last eight months, highlighting the growing strategic importance between the two countries.

"The president is going to India as a demonstration of the strong and enduring ties between our two countries," a senior US administration official in Washington DC told reporters.

Mr Trump tweeted on Sunday that he was looking "forward to being with my great friends in INDIA!", posting a meme video of himself as the warrior protagonist of India's biggest blockbuster movie, Baahubali.

The president and first lady Melania Trump will head to northern Agra city to witness sunset at iconic love monument the Taj Mahal before flying to New Delhi to hold talks with Mr Modi on Tuesday.

Thousands of workers across the three cities have been prepping and brushing up streets, catching strays and finishing building a wall in Ahmedabad to allegedly hide a slum from Mr Trump's sight.

Giant cut-outs of the leaders dot the streets in the cities alongside national flags and banners festooned with messages highlighting the unity and friendship between the two countries.

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World's largest cricket stadium awaits Trump

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Thousands of extra security personnel were on guard to ensure the safety of Mr Trump, who last visited the country in 2014 to expand his real estate business.

The visit comes months before he begins his campaign for a second term as president, with commentators saying the joint public rally is largely aimed at winning the support of the large Indian diaspora in the US.

Mr Modi will also try to broaden his influence through the visit, ramping up support domestically and his stature as a global leader.

In New Delhi the two leaders will focus on strengthening security, military and energy co-operation, including signing of deals to buy military helicopters and nuclear reactors.

The US has increasingly placed its bets on New Delhi to check China's growing influence, mostly to counter Beijing's trading and strategic ties in Asia-Pacific.

Indian students practice Mallakhambh, a traditional sport, on the stage prepared for the roadshow for US President Donald Trump in Ahmedabad, India. EPA
Indian students practice Mallakhambh, a traditional sport, on the stage prepared for the roadshow for US President Donald Trump in Ahmedabad, India. EPA

New Delhi will buy military helicopters worth US$2.4 billion and six nuclear reactors to fulfill energy needs for Asia’s third largest economy.

The two leaders are likely to discuss the Afghanistan peace deal, with New Delhi likely to ask for a greater role in the talks.

Despite the warmth between the two leaders, the main thorn to relation remains bilateral trade. But Mr Trump's "America First" and Mr Modi's "Make in India" policies exemplify the protectionist attitudes of the leaders, making the signing of a new trade deal unlikely during the visit.

Washington and New Delhi have imposed higher duties on each other in recent months and India has tightened its noose around US information technology and e-commerce companies over regulations.

"We would not like to rush into a deal, as the issues involved are complicated and there are many decisions which actually could affect or impact the lives of millions of people on the ground," an Indian official said.

Another sticking point between the two countries will be the relationship between India and arch rival Pakistan. Relations have been on freeze after Mr Modi's aggressive policies on Kashmir.

Mr Trump offered last year to mediate to resolve the vexed Kashmir issue, but New Delhi asked Washington to stay out of the issue. A senior US administration official said that Mr Trump will encourage India to engage with Pakistan over Kashmir.

The official also said the president will raise the issue of religious freedoms in India and the ongoing controversy over the new citizenship law that has triggered deadly street protests since December.

Analysts say the visit is more of about optics than real business, given the huge differences between the two countries over trade.

"The rally in Gujarat is itself the key deliverable,” Manoj Joshi, a fellow at Delhi-based think-tank Observer Research Foundation, told The National.

"The US is the head of the foremost military and economic power in the world and presumably he has your attention, so obviously it is extremely important given India's need for the US."

Updated: February 24, 2020 04:42 PM

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