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Mega rally as Trump begins first official India visit

24 February 2020, MVT 12:00
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) greets US President Donald Trump (C) and First Lady Melania Trump (2L) upon their arrival at Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport in Ahmedabad on February 24, 2020. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP)
24 February 2020, MVT 12:00

US President Donald Trump arrived in India on Monday for a lightning visit featuring a huge rally at the world's biggest cricket stadium and other high-profile photo opportunities, but likely short on concrete achievements.

Trade tensions have grown between the world's two biggest democracies as Trump's "America First" drive collides with fellow protectionist strongman Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "Make in India" mantra.

While sharing concerns about China and deepening defence ties, India has bristled at Trump's offer to mediate over the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, and at unease in Washington over a citizenship law criticised as anti-Muslim.

The billionaire and the tea seller's son were due to address a huge rally of around 100,000 people at the world's biggest cricket stadium in Modi's home state before Trump and First Lady Melania fly to the Taj Mahal to watch sunset.

Excited crowds began queueing at 4:00 am to get into the brand new stadium for the "Namaste Trump" rally, payback for a "Howdy Modi" event in Houston last year in front of cheering Indian-Americans where Trump likened Modi to Elvis Presley.

"We hope the US liberalises its visa regime for skilled workers. They need it and India has too many young skilled and talented people," said student Maunas Shastri.

Preparations have been feverish for the visit, with workers rushing to finish the stadium and building a wall that locals said was to hide a slum. Stray dogs, cows and monkeys have been moved away.

Parts of the Taj Mahal, the white marble "jewel of Muslim art" according to UNESCO, were given a mud-pack facial to remove stains while efforts were undertaken to lessen the stench of the adjacent river.

Trump told a rally on Thursday that "six to 10 million people" would be along the route of his motorcade, but this appears to have been a misunderstanding. Organisers said there will be tens of thousands.

Thousands of posters with the words were erected every 10 metres (yards) along Ahmedabad's major roads. Sellers of flags and masks of Modi and Trump were doing brisk business.

Trump tweeted en route to India -- in Hindi -- that he was "eager to come to India" while Modi responded by saying that "guests are next to God", a well-known saying.

- 'Tariff king' -

But behind the platitudes and apparent warm rapport between the two leaders lies a fraught relationship worsened by the trade protectionism of both governments.

Trump has called India the "tariff king" and said before the visit that Asia's third-largest economy has been "hitting us very, very hard for many, many years".

Rather than a wide-ranging trade deal, reports said Trump and Modi may instead ink smaller agreements covering Harley-Davidson motorcycle imports and American dairy products, as well as defence pacts.

Also on the cards could be the supply of six nuclear reactors, the fruit of a landmark atomic accord in 2008.

An Indian government spokesman said the world's fifth-largest economy "would not like to rush into a deal", adding that the issues involved were "complicated".

"The big missing deliverable at least for now seems likely to be the one both countries had sought, which is the trade deal," Tanvi Madan from the Brookings Institution told reporters.

Other points of friction include defence, with Russia remaining India's biggest supplier despite a possible $2.4-billion deal for American helicopters.

The US has pressured India to stop buying Iranian oil, while US businesses have raised concerns over New Delhi's plans to force foreign firms to store Indian consumers' personal data inside the country.

In Washington, India has faced criticism over its clampdown in restive Kashmir, and a recently passed citizenship law that critics say is anti-Muslim and which has led to ongoing protests across the nation.

A senior US administration official told reporters Trump would raise concerns about religious freedom in the Hindu-majority nation during the trip, "which is extremely important to this administration".

"We are concerned... and I think that the president will talk about these issues in his meetings with Prime Minister Modi and note that the world is looking to India to continue to uphold its democratic traditions, respect for religious minorities," the official added.

Trump also ridiculed Modi last year for "constantly telling me he built a library in Afghanistan".

"That's like five hours of what we spend... And we are supposed to say, 'oh, thank you for the library'. I don't know who is using it in Afghanistan," Trump had said.

Ahmedabad, India | AFP

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