When a smiling Narendra Modi gave a bear hug to President Donald Trump as he landed in Ahmedabad airport on Feb. 24 on his first ever state visit to India last week, welcoming him and First Lady Melania Trump, the Prime Minister’s eyes seemingly betrayed excitement and expectation.
That smile stayed on Modi’s face at the end of Trump’s 36-hour whirlwind tour of India, despite commentators’ observation that the president’s visit was long on symbolism and short on substance.
The two leaders signed deals on defense, although not one on trade and tariffs, during the trip, but they agreed to further bolster their partnership.
“In our discussion today, we have positively considered every important aspect of this partnership — be it defense and security, energy strategic partnership, technology cooperation, global connectivity, trade relations or people to people relations,” Modi said in a press statement about the Trump visit, released by the government. Trump hailed his trip as a “very productive visit,” but said he would keep working with Modi for “a comprehensive trade deal.” The U.S. is one of India’s biggest trade partners. The two leaders hoped the visit will mend a rift over tariffs.
Trump in Delhi
“This has been a very special visit — unforgettable, extraordinary,” Trump said alongside Modi during a joint statement from the gardens of Hyderabad House in Delhi Feb. 25. “What can you say? Very, very wonderful to be with you.” Trump said that he was “optimistic” a trade pact could be reached eventually, and claimed that the ties between the U.S. and India had reached historic strength.
Despite growing political and strategic ties between the two countries, there’s been tension over trade issues between India and the U.S,. Trump has complained that India’s tariffs — taxes on imports — are “unacceptable” and has described India as the “king” of tariffs.
According to a Feb. 24 Hindu.com report, at the heart of Trump’s foreign policy strategy are concerns about the trade deficit that the U.S. has with its economic partners worldwide.
Although India does not rank among the top 10 in this regard, there have been a series of skirmishes between Washington and New Delhi over tariffs in specific sectors, and that has destabilized the bilateral balance to a certain extent.
After the Hyderabad House joint appearance, Trump was welcomed at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan, with flourish as his presidential limousine was escorted by riders on horseback and reviewed cordons of troops and listened to the U.S. and Indian national anthems underneath a red canopy.
Incidentally, Trump’s Delhi visit, during which he and the first lady also toured Rajghat to lay a wreath and plant a tree, came on a day when violence against Modi’s controversial citizenship law erupted in the national capital, in which at least 13 people were reportedly killed in clashes between Hindus and Muslims in the northeastern part of Delhi.
The citizenship law passed by the Modi government has drawn flak from many Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. as well as academics and students, in addition to widespread protests in India over both the controversial citizenship law and the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution giving special status to Kashmir.
But Trump in Delhi during his news conference declined to take a public position on the citizenship law, saying he preferred to “leave that to India.”
Trump said he had brought up the issue of religious freedom in the country and was impressed by Modi’s response. “He was incredible, he told me — ‘In India we have worked very hard to have religious freedoms,” the president said.
Trump in Ahmedabad
Trump’s visit to India was the first time in five years after Barack Obama when an American president came to India and the first time ever that any U.S. president visited India in a presidential election year in the U.S.
“The First Lady and I have just traveled 8,000 miles around the globe to deliver a message to every citizen across this nation: America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people,” Trump said earlier as he addressed a campaign-style rally ‘Namaste Trump’ at Motera stadium during the first leg of his India visit after arriving in Ahmedabad airport a little after noon on Feb. 24 on a two-day visit to India.
That Trump gave the India visit importance despite his own re-election back home in 2020, where he is believed to be facing uncertainty, and spent time in the country was seen in certain quarters as an indication of the U.S. president’s love for and “tremendous interest” in India.
At the 110000-seat Motera stadium, Modi said, alluding to Trump’s profuse praise of India that he is thankful to the American president for his words about India and its history and culture, noting that President Trump has not just honored Indians in India but also Indians in the U.S.
Trump’s Motera rally also illustrated “the populist bond between the two men and impressed a president who revels in spectacle,” The New York Times noted.
Trump said he has come to India in the spirit of fondness and goodwill “to expand our cherished partnership” of incredible power and potential.” To the hundreds of thousands of everyday citizens who have come out and lined the streets in a stunning display of Indian culture and kindness, and to the 125,000 people in this great stadium today — thank you for the spectacular welcome to your magnificent country,” Trump said. The crowd inside the stadium gave him a huge applause.
Trump declared, “The Prime Minister (Modi) has a moving story of an incredible rise, and so does this entire nation. Your nation is doing so well. We are very, very proud of India. The story of the Indian nation is a tale of astounding progress, a miracle of democracy, extraordinary diversity, and above all, a strong and noble people. India gives hope to all of humanity.” The crowd again erupted in joy and applause.
Ram Madhav, national general secretary of the BJP, told CNBC that India attached “a lot of importance to this visit,” and the country is “very ambitious” to play a bigger role on a global stage.
What Observers Saw in the Visit
Despite the two leaders’ mutual admiration of each other in public, some observers felt that the visit took place not purely because of altruistic reasons as both Trump and Modi had other selfish interests for the high-profile state visit for which the Modi government pulled out all the stops and reportedly spent more than $14 million to woo the president and the first lady.
The visit was also seen by some experts as a “pleasant trip” to a country where Trump was not expected to face tough questions, but could win some easy political points for his domestic politics.
Part of the aim of Trump is to give American voters a good image to point to when Trump seeks re-election later this year. The visuals will be used by the Trump campaign to make the case the president is welcomed around the world, a BBC report said, quoting Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“They can show that Trump has made America great and respected, especially when some polls have said the respect for the U.S. has gone down on the international stage,” the report quoting Madan as saying.
According to Karthick Ramakrishnan quoted in the report, Trump’s efforts in reaching out to India could help boost his numbers at the margins. “I think there would be some short-term dividends but probably not to the extent that many Republicans might hope,” he said.
Even during his India trip, domestic politics did not leave Trump. At a meeting with Indian business leaders, Trump abandoned the tradition of avoiding domestic politics while traveling abroad and claimed that, “if the wrong person gets elected, everything will come to a halt,” and warned of economic calamity if he loses his reelection race in November.
For Modi, news reports also said, the Trump visit could be a reprieve from the vociferous opposition in India against some of his recent policies, a slumping economy and ongoing protests over a new citizenship law that excludes Muslims.
Madan said the visit will be a political boost and a good news story for Modi . “He will be seen in visuals standing with the most powerful leader of the world, so to speak,” she was quoted as saying.
Just ahead of Trump’s visit, news reports said India was open to greater market access for American farm and dairy products and lower duties on Harley-Davidson Inc. motorcycles. A Bloomberg report said New Delhi has yielded ground on the issue by agreeing to cut import duties for Harley-Davidson motorcycles by creating a separate tariff classification for them.
Quoting sources, it said the government has also indicated its willingness to relent on domestically sensitive issues like price caps on medical devices and market access to U.S. dairy products.
Trump in the past has resented India’s high import tariff on the iconic Harley Davidson motorcycles that used to be slapped with 100 percent duty but has been brought down to 50 percent, but it is still considered “unacceptable” by President Trump.
No Major Trade Deal in Delhi
Although no major trade deal emerged from the visit, Trump raised some hope earlier in this regard when he remarked at the Ahmedabad stadium address that, “Over the course of my visit, Prime Minister Modi and I will also discuss our efforts to expand the economic ties between our two countries. We will be making very, very major— among the biggest ever made — trade deals.”
From India’s point of view, the U.S. restrictions on visas for Indian tech workers has been a major source of concern for New Delhi has long been a cause of concern with Nasscom, India’s largest IT industry group, accusing the Trump’s administration of discriminating against Indian workers seeking H-1B visas. It did not, however, seem to figure in talks during the visit.
In his speech in Ahmedabad, Trump, however, noted that Indian Americans enrich every aspect of America’s life. “They are titans of business, the biggest, the best pioneers of science, masters of the art and innovation of technology like few people have been able to see no matter where you go anywhere in this universe.”
During a high profile CEO roundtable in Delhi, attended by captains of the Indian industry, including Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani, Mahindra Group Chairman Anand Mahindra, Wipro’s Azim Premji, Tata Sons Chairman N Chandrasekaran, Aditya Birla Group Chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla and Infosys CEO Salil Parekh, Trump promised to reduce more regulations in his country as he looked for overseas investment to boost the American economy. He said his government is committed to reducing a “lot more regulations”
Irrespective of the tangible benefits for India accruing from the Trump visit and criticisms in certain quarters,ordinary people, whether in Ahmedabad or Agra,seemed to be thrilled about the U.S. president’s visit.
According to a Pew Research survey, while there is less enthusiasm for his policies, India’s public views president Trump positively. In his speech in Motera stadium Trump said that he will remember India for its “remarkable hospitality,” adding that “India will hold a special place in our hearts.”
Praise for Bollywood, Cricketers
Before the Ahmedabad rally at the stadium, thousands of people lined up the route of Modi and Trump’s motorcade from the airport to Motera despite warm weather. Inside the stadium, ordinary people sat alongside celebrities from different walks of life, including BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) President Sourav Ganguly and Secretary Jay Shah, son of Home Minister Amit Shah, as well as celebrity singer-composer Kailash Kherto witness the Namaste Trump rally. Kher also performed at the stadium which was decked up with huge hoardings and large-screen displays of Trump and Modi.
The Star Spangled Banner, the American national anthem, was followed by Indian national anthem as three giant digital billboards lit up with flags of both countries provided the backdrop for the dais.
“India gives hope to all of humanity,” Trump saidwhile touching upon India’s soft power icons, such as cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohlimuch to the delight of the thousands present at the world’s biggest cricket stadium, as well as referring to the colorful festival of Holi, the festival of light, Deepawali, and blockbuster Bollywood movies Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Sholay.Trump, however, sent social media into a frenzy for mispronouncing Tendulkar’s name.
“This is the country that produces nearly 2,000 movies a year from the hub of genius and creativity known as Bollywood! All over the planet, people take great joy in scenes of Bhangra music, dance, romance and drama, and classic Indian films like DDLJ and Sholay, “ Trump noted in his address.
Artistes and performers from many states were allotted a stage on the entire route to perform in their traditional attire. Around 50 stages were erected on the route, starting from the airport till Motera stadium.Trump briefly stopped over at Sabarmati Ashram, along with wife Melania and Prime Minister Modi.
At Sabarmati Ashram
News Reports said Trump and wife Melania tried their hands at spinning the charkha at theashram as Modi was seen showing around the Trumps. The spinning wheel, associated with Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom movement and campaign for self-reliance, is one of India’s most recognizable symbols.Modi also presented a memento of Mahatma Gandhi’s “Three Wise Monkeys” to the U.S. president.
A day later, the Trumps’ visit to Sabarmati Ashram sparked a controversy after Mahatma’ Gandhi’s great-grandson Tushar Gandhi expressed displeasure Feb. 24 over Trump’s writing only a Thank You Message to “his friend Prime Minister Narendra Modi” without even mentioning the name of the Mahatma. He complained that it was the First Lady who was spinning the charkha wheel while the President was sitting there and posing, according to an NDTV report quoting Asian News International.
However, at Rajghat in Delhi on Feb. 25, Trump signed the visitor’s book, writing, “The America(n) people stand strongly with a sovereign and wonderful India - the vision of the great Mahatma Gandhi - This is a tremendous honor!”
At the Taj Mahal in Agra
In Agra, curious onlookers crowded the streets from the airport to the Taj Mahal where the Trumps made a short visit to see the 17th century marble mausoleum on the evening of Feb. 24.
Trump, who once owned the Trump Taj Mahal hotel and casino in Atlantic City, N.J., which was inspired by the Indian landmark, had never visited Taj Mahal until last week. The president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner were also on hand, taking photos in front of the building.
“Taj Mahal inspires awe, a timeless testament to the rich and diverse beauty of Indian culture! Thank you, India,” Trump wrote on the visitor’s book.
At both Ahmedabad and Agra,drummers and dancers wearing colorful clothes performed on the tarmac. U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath along with senior government officials were present to receive the presidential entourage.
As the elaborate and pompous state visit of Trump came to a close, its outcome appeared more about optics than policy.Trump’s visit, observers said, will be remembered more for the images it produced like a crowd topping 100,000 cheering for him at a stadium rally, a softly lit tour of the Taj Mahal, and multiple homages to Mahatma Gandhi.