Across the stands of the world’s biggest cricket stadium, a sea made up of the faces of Donald Trump and Narendra Modi stared out. The 125,000-strong crowd who had gathered to welcome to US president on his first visit to India alongside the Indian prime minister, at a rally dubbed “Namaste Trump”, not only danced and chanted to show their appreciation, but many also donned masks of the two leaders.
“America loves India, respects India,” said Trump as he stepped out to address the rally, to roars of approval. “India gives hope to all of humanity.”
The event, organised in Ahmedabad in Modi’s home state of Gujarat on Monday afternoon, was the pinnacle of Trump’s visit to India and a platform for the two leaders to show off their enthusiastically friendly relationship. Before taking to the stage, Trump rally favourites Madman Across the Water by Elton John and Macho Man by the Village People boomed out across the giant stadium.
The effusive bond between the two leaders was on full display, and Trump delivered a gushing speech paying tribute to an “exceptional leader … and a man I am proud to call my true friend”, while Modi sat behind him looking pleased. “Everybody loves him but I will tell you this, he is very tough,” added Trump, who unusually did not appear to divert from his speech script at all.
Modi was equally exuberant in his compliments for Trump and led the crowds in a chant of “namaste Trump” which loosely translates as “welcome Trump”. “India-US relations are no longer just another partnership, it’s a far greater and closer relationship,” said the Indian prime minister.
Nonetheless, little significant in terms of agreements between the US and India is expected to come out of Trump’s 36 hours in India, with trade deal negotiations at a current standstill, and the president’s speech, which jumped between references to Bollywood, famous cricket players, Diwali, Mahatma Gandhi, and Modi’s “moving” rags to riches life story, served only to further the sense this was simply an opportunity for both leaders to pat each other on the back.
Such optics are particularly vital for Modi, who has been facing a sustained backlash and period of protest in India for the past three months after his Hindu-nationalist BJP government passed a controversial citizenship law.
Trump did announce that a deal had been made for India to purchase $3bn of US military helicopters but said in his speech said that they were still only in the “early stages of discussion” for what he described as “an amazing trade deal, maybe the biggest ever trade deal” between the US and India. Further developments that have come out of the trip are expected to be announced in Delhi on Tuesday, before the president leaves
While there was not the turnout of 7 million people that Trump had tweeted about, this was still thought to be the largest rally that the president had ever addressed.
Archna Singh, 31, was among the locals from Ahmedabad who had turned out for the rally and had brought her two children. “This is a very exciting day for us, to have the US president here shows how India is a very important country,” she said. “This good relationship will make us stronger.”
Prior to arriving at the stadium, Trump visited the historic Sabarmati Ashram, where Mahatma Gandhi and his wife had lived for over a decade. Eschewing the opulent feasts usually laid out for visiting presidents, the ashram offered Trump and Melania assorted canned juice, biscuits and the typical Gujarati street food snacks of khaman and samosas.
For all the enthusiasm in the stadium, there had been controversy in the build up to Trump’s visit to Ahmedabad after the local authorities built a wall to hide the slums along the route taken by the US president’s motorcade and spent an estimated $14m for the visit, which lasted less than three hours.
There had also been reported harassment and surveillance of activists in Gujarat and at 1:40am on Monday morning, Dev Desai, a local activist was picked up from his home by the Gujarat special crime branch and could not be located.
Despite the best efforts by authorities in Ahmedabad to quash all signs of dissent, a group of students staged a moving protest through the city against what they described as a “fascist alliance” between Trump and Modi.
“This kind of visit is part of a wider alliance between authoritarian and far-right political formations across the world,” said Ajin Thomas, who took part in the demonstration. “In both cases, it is democracy that is in peril.”