On a whirl-wind visit that covered Ahmedabad, Agra and Delhi Feb. 24 and 25, President Donald J. Trump followed a packed schedule that included inaugurating a massive cricket stadium in the “Namaste Trump” rally in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hometown, where both leaders of democracies were cheered by more than 100,000 people; bilateral negotiations were held that appeared to move the needle toward a more comprehensive trade deal; and Washington secured a $3 billion defense equipment sale.
The visit was a combination of pomp and circumstance but also one that allowed the two sides to gauge each other’s capacity to negotiate, build on the Indo-Pacific alliance, and spell out more than once, the role that Indian-Americans play in the bilateral relationship. Modi looked forward to a future “comprehensive global strategic partnership” of the two nations in his remarks in the Joint Statement. Trump described his visit as “unforgettable, extraordinary.”
Starting his trip with unqualified praise for the nation of 1.3 billion, Trump said in his first address at Motera stadium, “India is a country that proudly embraces freedom, liberty, individual rights, the rule of law and the dignity of every human being.”
He went on to say, “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.”
Though a trade deal was not signed, Trump said, “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 … Except that he’s a very tough negotiator.”
“India’s tariffs were still too high, probably the world’s highest, Trump said in his only criticism of the world’s biggest democracy during a visit that he said was a spectacular success,” Reuters reported.
During the trip both Trump and Modi spoke at length about the growing military cooperation and training exercises that their armed forces had been engaged in, clearly an attempt to counter China’s rise.
Trump told the media that he also discussed with the importance of a secure 5G telecoms network in India, ahead of a planned airwaves auction by the country, Reuters noted.
During the bilateral discussions and in his Motera address, Trump dwelt on the issue of terrorism, noting that “our borders will always be closed to terrorists, terrorism and any form of extremism” and that India could be the leader in reducing tensions in South Asia.
However, he qualified that Pakistan was working “in a very positive way” with the U.S. to rid its territory of “terrorist organizations and militants that operate on the Pakistani border.”
“Every nation has the right to secure and control borders,” Trump said, adding, “The United States and India are committed to working together to stop terrorists and to fight their ideology.”
The Washington Post reported that “Trump drew the loudest cheers from the audience in Motera when he paid homage to unique cultural phenomena such as Bollywood movies, cricket stars and the Sardar Patel statue, the world’s tallest such structure of one of India’s foremost national leaders.
Dr. Foram Bhavsar, 45, who attended the Motera welcome for Trump, told The Washington Post that she loved Trump’s references to Indian festivals such as Diwali and Holi, and that she never expected she would see Trump in her hometown. “This is a lifetime memorable moment,” she said. “Perhaps we will never see this another time,” the Post quoted her saying.
At one point during the second day of his visit, Trump praised Modi’s for “working very hard on religious freedom,” and refused to discuss issues such as the Citizenship Amendment Act, when prodded by media. “I don’t want to discuss that,” he said. “I want to leave that to India and hopefully they’re going to make the right decision for the people.”
Trump was also quoted by the Post saying, “We did talk about religious freedom, and I will say the prime minister was incredible … In India, they have worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom.”
When President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump visited the Taj Mahal, he effusively praised the monument to love. When they arrived in New Delhi, the American President was given a formal state welcome at Raj Bhavan, the presidential palace where a 21-cannon salute and an honor guard on horseback welcomed him.
According to Reuters, Trump’s trip received wall-to-wall media coverage in India, with commentators saying he had hit all the right notes on his first official visit. Trump, like a number of American presidents in the past, has a high approval rating in India.
The Indian media were also “effusive in their praise for Modi, for pulling off a spectacular reception for Trump,” Reuters reported, symbolized by one of the headlines that ran in the Times of India — “Modi-Trump hug gets tighter.”
Near the end of his visit Feb. 25, Trump made a courtesy call to the President of India Ram Nath Kovind at Rashtrapati Bhavan. “You are a valued friend of India,” Kovind told Trump.Trump said Modi and he had done “very productive work” in the two-day visit. “This was a tremendous learning experience. … India to me is a very special nation.”