Ahmedabad: Basking in adulation from a massive, colourful crowd, Donald Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi lavished praise on each other on Monday in a reaffirmation of US-India ties as the subcontinent poured on the pageantry in a joyful welcome for the US president.
There were enough images to think it was a cricket match. Yet, the only time the word ‘cricket’ and the name of an Indian icon associated with the sport was heard at the stadium was from a rather unlikely source – the American president who mentioned ‘cricket’ twice in his speech and alluded to the maestro Sachin Tendulkar. It elicited a huge roar from the near-capacity crowd at the newly-built Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium here where US President Donald Trump was accorded a grand public reception on his maiden visit to India. And that quite summed up the truth behind the statement that foreign policy isn’t quite a zero-sum game.
In fact, on Monday, in his first direct address to a public gathering in India, it was the American president who came up as the better of the two speakers.
Right through his little under 30-minute speech, Trump was spot-on in appealing to an Indian audience. From cricket to Bollywood, Swami Vivekanand to India’s democratic ethos - the US president kept the Indian side happy, cleverly mixing his pitch. While not missing out on highlighting the importance of having India as a strategic partner to counter global terror, Trump did drop more than a hint on a much-anticipated trade deal, saying he was closely working with Modi to work out the “biggest ever trade deal” with India, details of which would be announced very soon. In a strong pitch on US-India friendship, President Trump said that he had come all the way from 8,000 miles across the world because “America loves India, America respects India and America will always remain a loyal friend to the Indian people. From this day on, India will always hold a special place in our hearts.”
Without mentioning Jammu & Kashmir which was reorganised and whose special status was withdrawn by the Modi government last year, Trump made an oblique comment seemingly in support of India. “Every nation has a right to exercise its sovereignty and secure its borders,” he said. However, he also indicated that the US was keen on taking Pakistan along for the sake of security. “For this reason, my administration is working positively with Pakistan. Our relationship with Pakistan is a good one. There are big signs of progress for greater stability and peace of all the nations in South Asia,” he said.
The president announced that India and the US were going to expand their defence cooperation and major defence partners. He pointed out that India and the US have recently conducted the ‘Tiger Trio’ -- sea, air and military joint exercises. “We make the best weapons. We will sell India the best defence systems and secure the Indo-Pacific for our children and for many generations to come.”
Earlier, Modi said: “President Trump’s visit opens a new chapter in our relationship - a chapter that will document the progress and prosperity of the people of America and India. The whole world knows what President Trump has done to fulfil the dreams of America.”
The organisers of Monday’s show left no stone unturned to make sure the 110,000-capacity stadium looked impressive enough to the American president’s entourage, that also included US First Lady Melania Trump, the president’s daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Crowds started streaming in from as early as 8am for a free attendance at the venue for a one-of-a-kind opportunity. And not a soul moved an inch from their seats until the guests reached the stadium around 1.40pm local time, slightly behind schedule, following a road show from the airport to the stadium, with a whistle-stop visit to Sabarmati Ashram thrown in between.
It was a humongous challenge for the security agencies providing cover to the US guests and the Indian PM in an open stadium with such a huge crowd. There was a virtual shutdown in a roughly two-kilometre radius around the stadium, with all shops and commercial establishments closed and snipers positioned at all strategic points on high-rises. Even then, people were seen standing on balconies and rooftops of houses in the immediate vicinity of the stadium’s perimeter wall, trying to catch a glimpse of the guests inside the stadium.
There was no dearth of optics at the Motera Stadium. From a giant LED screen flashing live images of Trump and his family members with the Indian prime minister to those Modi-Trump masks on the stands, from the flags of the two countries fluttering outside the stadium’s main gate to those ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ (hail Mother India) chants reverberating across the terraces at the world’s largest cricket stadium. But in spite of these optics, one cannot but admit that the Motera event didn’t boil down to a mere photo opportunity as Trump’s speech, though very delicately balanced in areas of diplomatic nuances and sensitivities, did strike a chord with the Ahmedabad audience as more of a social outreach from the most powerful country on the planet to the world’s largest democracy as an equal partner in areas of shared interests.
Foreign policy for sure doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.