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Trump begins India trip with mega rally and stop at monument of love

Washington and New Delhi are locked in a simmering trade war but Modi embraces American leader on his arrival in Ahmedabad

US President Donald Trump received a rapturous welcome on his first tour of India, where addressed a giant rally alongside Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and visited the country’s monument to love.

The US and India are in a simmering trade war but the leaders, at least for the time being, moved past their differences to foster a closer relationship between themselves and their countries.

Mr Modi embraced Mr Trump on the tarmac as dozens beat drums and danced to folk tunes at Ahmedabad airport in the Hindu nationalist leader's home state of Gujarat.

More than 100,000 people gathered for the "Namaste Trump" event at the world's biggest cricket stadium near Ahmedabad to listen to the leaders shower each other with praise.

"America loves India. America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people," Mr Trump said, while calling Mr Modi an "exceptional leader, a great champion of India".

Before the speech, the two leaders drove to India's independence leader Mahatma Gandhi's ashram, or spiritual home, from the airport as thousands lined the streets to wave at the motorcade.

The Trumps laid their hands on Gandhi's spinning wheel and Mr Modi presented them with a white marble statue of a legendary monkey trio, signifying the independence hero's philosophy of goodness.

The entire city was spruced up for the visit and adorned with giant cut-outs of the two politicians.

The pomp and pageantry continued on a 22-kilometre stretch from the ashram to the new stadium where crowds lined up for entry past midnight, wearing face masks of Mr Trump and Mr Modi and waving national flags of the two countries.

"India-US relations are no longer just another partnership. It is a far greater and closer relationship," Mr Modi told the crowd.

It evoked memories of last year's "Howdy Modi" event in Houston where Mr Trump called the prime minister the "Father of India" and compared him to "rock star Elvis Presley".

The two nationalist leaders have met four times in the past eight months.

Commentators say the event was largely intended to bolster the stature of the two leaders among their domestic audiences, with Mr Trump setting his sights on the support of the Indian diaspora before the US presidential election this year.

The Trumps, along with the president's daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, flew to the northern city of Agra to a sunset view of the 16th century marble monument of love, the Taj Mahal.

Mr and Mrs Trump held hands on the lawns of the medieval tomb of the Mughal ruler and posed for pictures before flying to New Delhi for a formal meeting with Mr Modi on Tuesday.

Mr Trump promised to provide India with "the most feared military equipment on the planet" as he stressed its importance to "a free and open Indo-Pacific region".

He said the two countries would sign defence deals worth $3 billion (Dh11.01bn) in New Delhi and vowed to continue military ties between the two countries.

Washington has banked on New Delhi becoming a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China in the region.

Mr Trump has a significant following in India, particularly among Mr Modi's supporters, over his stand on militant groups and public criticism of Pakistan, New Delhi's arch-rival.

But in recent months, New Delhi has been jittery about Mr Trump's repeated offers to mediate over Kashmir, an insurgency-racked region divided between the nuclear-armed South Asian nations.

He said the two nations were united in defending citizens from the threat of terrorism and that the killing of ISIS founding leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi was proof of his determination to defeat militant groups.

But Mr Trump described the relationship with Pakistan as "a very good one" and said there were "signs of big progress with Pakistan".

Islamabad has played an important role in America's planned exit from the 19-year war in Afghanistan, one of Mr Trump's election promises.

Jaganath, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, said Mr Trump's speech was low on substance, including on Pakistan where India expected a much harsher approach.

"Trump’s speech was prepared to impress the Indian crowd, pitching about positive India-US ties," Mr Jaganath told The National.

Mr Trump hinted that the two sides would iron out differences with a trade deal, while calling Mr Modi a tough negotiator.

Washington and New Delhi have been in a tariff war in recent years after Mr Trump scrapped India's preferential trade status.

"We will be making very, very major, among the biggest ever made, trade deals," he said at the stadium.

India has been trying to sign a limited trade deal but Washington has hinted that it may only come after presidential elections.

The leaders are expected to speak together in New Delhi and sign agreements on energy co-operation, space technology and strategic ties.

Mr Trump praised India for embracing "freedom, liberty, individual rights and rule of law and dignity of every human being".

But senior US administration officials said the president was likely to raise concerns over the controversial new citizenship law that many say is anti-Muslim.

A policeman and two protesters were killed in clashes as rock-throwing protesters who support the law clashed with those who oppose it in the capital city on Monday, forcing police to impose restrictions in parts of New Delhi.

About 30 people have died in clashes since December after the law was passed by Parliament, triggering mass protests across India.

Updated: February 24, 2020 11:42 PM



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