“Namaste Trump!” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shouted to the crowd, which repeated it back to a beaming Trump.
Standing alongside Modi, Trump on Monday inaugurated the brand-new Motera Stadium, lined with 110,000 orange, yellow and blue seats — all filled. Trump is ostensibly in India to help mitigate a long-standing trade dispute while tightening U.S.-Indian relations, but Monday’s mega-rally was also designed to appeal to Indian-American voters as Trump heads into his reelection campaign.
“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 Americans will always be true and loyal friends to the Indian people,” Trump said in a speech that was translated into Hindi on a large video screen in the stadium, which sits along the Sabarmati River in Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
It was a political-style rally like no other. Even Trump’s popular MAGA rallies couldn’t compare to the size and scope of the “Namaste Trump” rally.
Attendees, some wearing matching shirts from schools, companies or groups and others visiting from the United States, gradually streamed into the heavily secured stadium starting at 8 a.m., hours ahead of the rally’s start time. Traditional, folk and patriotic songs blasted from the loudspeakers, keeping things upbeat under the unrelenting sun. A pair of jumbo video screens showed Trump’s motorcade moving through the city.
Nearly everyone was wearing white baseball caps provided by organizers that featured a Namaste Trump logo across the front and both countries’ flags on the brim. Even if the crowd started streaming out before the speeches were over because of the intense heat, the stadium was consistently filled with adulation for the U.S. president.
“Trump is my favorite,” gushed Gautam Patel, wearing a “Trump, Make India Great Again” baseball cap. “I like Trump. He’s straightforward, outspoken. … He’s got the verbal diarrhea but that’s okay. … He tells how it is. I love him.”
Patel, a businessman who grew up in India but now lives outside Chicago and planned his vacation to India around the rally, said he supports Trump because he helped push through the 2017 tax cuts and his opposition to illegal immigration. “I elected him and I will elect him again,” he said.
The event was more than twice the size of the “Howdy Modi” rally both leaders headlined in 2019 at a cavernous football stadium in Houston, billed as the largest event in the U.S. for a leader of a foreign nation.
“My friends, my family, maybe every Patel likes Trump,” quipped Suresh Patel, 67, who splits his time between Jersey City, N.J., and Anand, India. A green card holder, he isn’t able to vote but his wife and three adult children are all U.S. citizens and voted for Trump.
“I’m feeling proud,” he said in Hindi. “It’s the meeting of the world’s oldest democrat and the world’s biggest democracy.”
Hundreds of police officers in beige uniforms and black berets surrounded the stadium. Construction materials from the newly built stadium sat in piles outside. Near the VIP entrance was a huge sign that read “Welcome to India Donald and Melania Trump.”
As Trump’s motorcade slowly made its way to the stadium, the Indian music gave way to Trump’s rally playlist, including “Macho Man” and “Tiny Dancer.”
“People over here think he’s very powerful,” said Rashi Sharma, 20, a college student from Ahmedabad studying marketing and entrepreneurship. “I’ve always heard of him. He’s a strong leader. I’m following him on Twitter.” She said “watching him live and listening to his speech is an honor for us.”
At times, it felt a little like one of Trump’s MAGA rallies in the U.S. Some attendees went out of their way to criticize journalists, blast the mainstream media and praise Fox News. Trump and Modi even exited the stage to The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” Trump’s closing song at rallies since his 2016 campaign.
“We are registered Democrats but we have changed our views lately,” said Daksha Dalal, 66, a federal government retiree from Kansas City, Kan., who was spending the winter in India and attending the rally with her husband. The couple volunteered they used to watch CNN but switched to Fox News after a “negative” report on Modi. “We thought we could never watch Fox because we are Democrats.”
By the time the two leaders arrived after 2 p.m. local time, temperatures had soared and attendees were desperately fanning themselves with anything they could find. In their speeches, Trump and Modi, who both rode to office on a wave of populist rhetoric, heaped praise on one another in their speeches.
“Trump’s visit is a new chapter in the relationship between the U.S. and India, a chapter that will document the progress and prosperity of Americans and Indians,” Modi said in Hindi.
Trump talked about the economy — his usual topic — but this time he spoke about India’s economy. And he mentioned a landslide election — another usual topic — but this time he was describing Modi’s 2019 victory and ascendance from humble roots as a tea seller’s son.
“You are proof that Indians can accomplish at all, anything they want,” he said in his 27-minute remarks in which he mispronounced several Indian names and cities but name-checked well-known cricket players and Bollywood stars.
Modi began his political career in Gujarat, where he served as chief minister. As prime minister, he has enjoyed widespread popularity at home, though his reputation has taken a hit recently over over a new citizenship law that favors all religions over Islam. The move has sparked widespread protests around the country.
In his speech, Trump notably praised all religions.
Before appearing at the rally, Trump made a stop at the Sabarmati Ashram, the humble home where Mahatma Gandhi lived for a dozen years as he helped push India to gain independence from Britain. At one point, Modi could be seen explaining to Trump how to use a charkha, a traditional spinning wheel used by Gandhi. A makeshift VIP building had been hastily constructed for Trump and Modi in recent days, and the White House had been quiet about the visit ahead of time.
Another 100,000 people, largely hand-picked, spent hours in the sun waiting to wave small U.S. and Indian flags and cheer as the presidential motorcade drove passed. Some waved or gave a thumbs up. Along the route, artists from all 28 states performed at pop-up stages.
The leaders of China, Japan and Israel have all visited Ahmedabad since Modi became prime minister. But Trump is the first U.S. president and most high-profile visitor to date — even if he’s staying for less than two days.
Ahmedabad, a largely industrial city that bills itself as the land of Gandhi, features large swaths of crowded, low-income neighborhoods and more than its share of litter and cows roaming the streets. It has been furiously preparing for Trump’s visit for days — sprucing up the city, repairing roads, erecting flags and building a wall to hide a poor area along the route of the presidential motorcade.
Hundreds of signs — some in English, some in Hindi — have popped up, featuring photos of Trump and Modi with phrases that read “two dynamic personalities, one momentous occasion,” “the world’s largest democracy meets the world’s oldest democracy” and “a historic milestone for a historic friendship.”
The signs lined the lighted bridge across the Sabarmati River, where larger-than-life photos of Trump and Modi were also erected — Trump in his trademark dark suit tie, flashing a thumbs up.
Before Trump left Washington, he spoke about the crowds he expected to see in India, telling reporters that Modi promised him five to seven million people would line the streets between the airport and stadium. By Thursday, in Trump’s recalling of his conversation with Modi, the number had ballooned to 10 million.
It’s not unusual for the former reality TV star to be ever mindful of the optics. He often boasts about the size of his audiences and mocks his opponents, Republicans or Democrats, for what he deems lackluster support at events.
But in the days before Trump’s arrival, Ahmedabad officials announced 100,000 Indians had been selected and registered to stand along the motorcade route. While it was nowhere close to the 10 million people the president had predicted, the crowds were undoubtedly enthusiastic.
Trump posted on Twitter Saturday that he was looking “so forward to being with my great friends in INDIA!” while retweeting a clip from the popular movie Baahubali showing himself as the lead character and savior, riding on a chariot with the first lady.
He will leave for the capital city of New Delhi Monday night after first taking a detour for a private tour of the Taj Mahal.