Ahmedabad, India — India poured on the pageantry with a joyful, colorful welcome for President Trump on Monday that kicked off a whirlwind 36-hour visit meant to reaffirm U.S.-India ties while providing enviable overseas imagery for a president in a re-election year. But the trip comes at time of rising trade tensions between the two nations.
More than 100,000 people packed into the world's largest cricket stadium, giving Mr. Trump the biggest rally crowd of his political career, for the pinnacle of the day's trio of presidential photo-ops.
He and first lady Melania Trump first visited a former home of independence leader Mohandas Gandhi. They also toured the famed Taj Mahal.
Nearly everyone in the newly constructed stadium in Ahmedabad in western India sported a white cap with the name of the event, "Namaste, Trump" — meaning, in essence, a reverential welcome to the president — and roared for the introductions of both Mr. Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The boisterous scene featured soldiers on camels, a mix of songs from Bollywood hits and the Trump campaign rally playlist, including an Elton John hit that seemed to puzzle most of the crowd.
Mr. Trump basked in the raucous reception that has eluded him on many foreign trips, some of which have featured massive protests and icy handshakes from world leaders. In India, he instead received a warm embrace at the airport - literally - from the ideologically aligned and hugger Modi.
The sun-baked city of Ahmedabad bustled as Mr. Trump arrived, as the streets teemed with people eager to catch a glimpse of the American president. Newly cleaned roads and planted flowers dotted the roads amid hundreds of billboards featuring the president and first lady. Thousands lined his motorcade route, shy of the up to 10 million that Mr. Trump speculated would be on hand.
On the way to the stadium, Mr. Trump's motorcade crossed over a river where a barge was emblazoned with "TRUMP" and onlookers chanted "Modi!" The stadium was packed with revelers, many of whom sported Trump and Modi masks, as they sat in 80-degree temperatures. The "Namaste Trump" rally was, in a way, the back half of home-and-home events for Modi and Mr. Trump, who attended a "Howdy Modi" rally in Houston last year that drew 50,000 people.
Mr. Trump lavished praise on both Modi and the democracy he leads, touting an effort to lift residents out of extreme poverty, saying "India gives hope to all of humanity."
"Your nation is doing so well, we are very very proud of India," he said. "The story of the Indian nation is a tale of astounding progress."
He seemed to get the most cheers and applause when he addressed joint U.S.-Indian efforts to fight terrorism. Mr. Trump said he and Modi would sign deals worth over $3 billion Tuesday to sell U.S. helicopters to the Indian military.
Mr. Trump's foreign visits have typically been light on sightseeing, but this time, the president and first lady visited the Taj Mahal. Stories in local media warned of monkeys that inhabit the landmark pestering tourists for food and, on occasion, menacing both visitors and slingshot-carrying security guards.
The politics behind the trip
Images of American presidents being feted on the world stage stand in contrast to those of their rivals in the opposing party slogging through diners in early-voting states and clashing in debate. This trip, in particular, reflects a Trump campaign strategy to showcase him in his presidential role during short, carefully managed trips that provide counter-programming to the Democrats' primary contest and produce the kinds of visuals his campaign can use in future ads. His aides also believe the visit could help the president woo tens of thousands of Indian-American voters before the November election.
The visit also comes at a crucial moment for Modi, a fellow populist, who has provided over a steep economic downturn and unfulfilled campaign promises about job creation.
India is also seen as an important counter to China, with which it shares a border.
Underlying trade tensions
The president will conclude his whirlwind visit to India Tuesday with a day in the capital, complete with a gala dinner meetings with Modi over stalled trade talks between the two nations. The two countries are closely allied, in part to act as a bulwark against the rising influence of nearby China, but trade tensions between the two countries have escalated since the Trump administration imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium from India. India responded with higher penalties on agricultural goods and restrictions on U.S. medical devices. The U.S. retaliated by removing India from a decades-old preferential trade program.
Perhaps alluding to tough negotiations over trade, Mr. Trump lightheartedly told the rally crowd: "Everybody loves him, but I will tell you this. He's very tough."
Controversy making presence felt
Eyes will also be on whether Mr. Trump weighs on in the protests enveloping India over its Citizenship Amendment Act. It provides a fast track to naturalization for some migrants who entered the country illegally while fleeing religious persecution, but excludes Muslims, raising fears that the country is moving toward a religious citizenship test. Passage has prompted large-scale protests and a violent crackdown.
Typically, Mr. Trump hasn't publicly rebuked world leaders for human rights abuses during his overseas trips. But one senior administration official said the U.S. is concerned about the situation and that the president will tell Modi the world is looking to India to continue to uphold its democratic traditions and respect religious minorities.
Indian police used tear gas and smoke grenades to disperse a crowd of thousands of demonstrators in New Delhi Monday as violence broke out over the citizenship law, the Reuters news service reports. Hundreds of supporters of the law clashed with protesters, with both sides throwing stones at the other.
Another example of anti-Trump sentiment: