AHMEDABAD, India — U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cemented a budding friendship on Monday with a joint rally in India attended by more than 110,000 people.
The two men held hands and heaped praise on each other in front of an noisy, enthusiastic crowd in the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, in what’s claimed to be the largest cricket stadium in the world.
The event is part of a two-day visit to India by Trump as Washington courts New Delhi in a bid to crack its strongly protectionist markets, woo Indian American voters in the U.S. and develop a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China.
“America loves India, America respects India and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people,” Trump told the crowd, which seemed to cheer his every sentence. “India will always hold a very special place in our hearts.”
He called Modi “a man I am proud to call my true friend.”
“Everybody loves him but I will tell you he is tough,” he added.
Modi introduced Trump by saying: “What he has done for realizing the American dream is well known.”
The Indian prime minister is a Hindu nationalist who has faced accusations that the 200 million Muslims in his country have faced increasing persecution under his government.
For Modi, it comes as a welcome distraction from a recent wave of nationwide protests against a new citizenship law which critics say is anti-Muslim. His country’s economic growth is also experiencing a downturn.
On Monday, thousands of people lined streets festooned with posters of the two leaders to watch Trump’s motorcade pass on its way to Ahmedabad’s Motera Stadium.
As usual for such a high-level event, security levels were high. But it is not often at a Trump event that the security staff include a squadron of some 40 police officers mounted on camels.
It was an event heralded by rock stadium-levels of noise, with the Village People’s “Macho Man” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones among the songs blasted from the PA system.
The sound of drumming and Indian music competed with deafening roars from the audience as performers put on a show before the two men came to the stage.
Almost all spectators wore caps featuring Trump’s name, underscoring his popularity in India, one of few countries in the world where he has a relatively high approval rating according to a recent Pew Research Center report.
Addressing a crowd he said was around 125,000, Trump said that both the U.S. and India were united in recognizing the need to “defend ourselves from the threat of radical Islamic terrorism,” which got the loudest cheer of the day.
He said he hoped the nations would expand business and trade ties, and that they would work toward a “free and open Indo-Pacific region for generations to come,” a possible reference to China’s regional dominance.
For Indians, Trump’s speech had something for everyone, touching on spirituality, Bollywood and of course cricket, the second most popular sport in the world after soccer.
“He’s pro-America, he protects immigrants — legal immigrants like us,” said Indian American Pradip Dalal, 68, who was inside the stadium while on vacation to India. “Just like Modi says ‘Make in India,’ Trump says ‘America First.’ It’s the same thing.”
Another spectator, businessman Vikram Jain, 42, added, “We like him very much.”
The visit has been dubbed “Namaste Trump” — or “hello, Trump” — and follows another mass rally by the two men in Texas in September, “Howdy Modi,” attended by around 50,000 people.
There are around 4 million Americans of Indian origin, an increasingly influential and prosperous voting bloc. Most did not vote for Trump in 2016 but he has aggressively courted them ahead of this year’s election.
Despite vastly different backgrounds — Modi says his father was a train station tea vendor while Trump was born into a New York real estate empire — the pair appear to have personal chemistry and share similar views.
Both are nationalists and have used immigration to rally their respective bases.
In December, India’s parliament passed a citizenship bill that offers amnesty to only non-Muslim illegal immigrants, legislation that critics say violates India’s secular constitution.
Muslims are India’s largest minority group but complain of mounting persecution under Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Modi was once banned from visiting the U.S. over allegations he turned a blind eye to anti-Muslim violence while chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, although he was cleared by an Indian court.
Trump faced accusations of bias against Muslims after banning visitors to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries in 2017.
India-U.S. ties are not without strains, however. Last year Washington ended preferential treatment for Indian imports amid U.S. frustration over Indian tariffs on everything from Harley Davidson motorcycles to medical devices. Indian officials play down the rift.
“Major issues are absolutely OK, it’s just small things and they will be solved,” Rajyalakshmi Rao, president of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce, told NBC News. “It’s win win for both countries. We’re a democratic country, unlike China. It’s a strategic alliance and we’re a huge market.”
U.S. goods and services trade with India was worth an estimated $142.6 billion in 2018.
India has also irked Washington by buying most of its military hardware from Russia.
Despite the Trump-Modi bonhomie no trade breakthroughs are expected during the rest of the trip, during which Trump will also visit the Taj Mahal before flying out of New Delhi late Tuesday.
“I am optimistic that working together the prime minister and I can reach a fantastic deal that’s good and even great for both of our countries,” Trump said.
“Except that he’s a very tough negotiator.”
Moska Najibullah contributed.