By Steve Holland and Alasdair Pal
AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) – Donald Trump was cheered by more than 100,000 Indians at the opening of the world’s largest cricket stadium on Monday, promising “an incredible trade deal” and “the most feared military equipment on the planet” at his biggest rally abroad.
Indians wore cardboard Trump masks and “Namaste Trump” hats to welcome the U.S. president at the huge new Motera stadium in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own political homeland, the western city of Ahmedabad.
Modi, a nationalist who won re-election last year and has shifted his country firmly to the right with policies that his critics decry as authoritarian and ethnically divisive, touts his relationship with Trump as proof of his own global standing.
U.S. officials have described Trump’s visit as a way to counter China’s rise as a superpower.
“You have done a great honor to our country. We will remember you forever, from this day onwards India will always hold a special place in our hearts,” Trump said to thunderous applause.
India is one of the few big countries in world where Trump’s personal approval rating is above 50%. It has built up ties with the United States in recent years as Washington’s relationship has become strained with India’s foe Pakistan.
“As we continue to build our defense cooperation, the United States looks forward to providing India with some of the best and most feared military equipment on the planet,” Trump said.
Trump said the two countries will sign deals on Tuesday to sell military helicopters worth $3 billion and that the United States must become the premier defense partner of India, which relied on Russian equipment during the Cold War. Reuters reported earlier that India has cleared the purchase of 24 helicopters from Lockheed Martin <LMT.N> worth $2.6 billion.
But in a sign of the underlying political tensions in India, violent protests broke out in Delhi – where Trump is due on Tuesday – over a new citizenship law that critics say discriminates against Muslims and is a further attempt to undermine the secular foundations of India’s democracy.
Vehicles were set on fire in the eastern part of Delhi, metal barricades torn down, and thick smoke billowed through the air as thousands of those who are supporting the new law clashed with those opposing it.
In his speech Trump extolled India’s rise as a stable and prosperous democracy as one of the achievements of the century. “You have done it as a tolerant country. And you have done it as a great, free country,” he said.
Trump planned to raise the issue of religious freedoms in India with Modi, an administration official said last week.
VERY BIG DEALS
In Ahmedabad, Modi embraced Trump as he stepped off Air Force One, along with his wife, Melania.
Folk dancers carrying colorful umbrellas danced alongside the red carpet as drummers, trumpeters and other musicians performed at the airport to welcome Trump and the U.S. delegation. Crowds lined the route along his cavalcade, many taking pictures on their phones.
The two sides did not manage to hammer out a trade deal ahead of the visit, with differences remaining over agriculture, medical devices, digital trade and proposed new tariffs. Trump said he was going to discuss economic ties with Modi, describing him as a tough negotiator.
“We will be making very, very major, among the biggest ever made, trade deals. We are in the early stages of discussion for an incredible trade agreement to reduce barriers of investment between the United States and India,” he said.
“And 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 – except that he is a very tough negotiator.”
Modi, who has built a personal rapport with Trump, is pulling out the stops for the president although prospects for even a limited trade deal during the visit are seen as slim.
“There is so much that we share, shared values and ideals … shared opportunities and challenges, shared hopes and aspirations,” said Modi at the rally.
Trump, who faces his own re-election campaign this year, has frequently praised Modi for his crowd-pulling power.
Last year, Trump held a “Howdy Modi” rally with Modi in Houston, drawing 50,000 people, mainly Indian Americans. At the time, Trump likened Modi to Elvis Presley as a draw for crowds.
Later, Trump and his entourage which includes daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner flew to Agra to see the Taj Mahal at sunset. Children lined the route cheering and waving flags as his convoy drove past.
Trump and Melania posed for pictures at the Taj, the 17th century monument to love. “It’s incredible,” he told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Neha Dasgupta, Euan Rocha in New Delhi, Zeba Siddiqui in Agra; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Giles Elgood and Peter Graff)