Trump plays India’s favourite notes with Bollywood and cricket, but there’s no holding back the bored Indian

The spectacle begins.
The spectacle begins.
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US president Donald Trump’s maiden official visit to India began today (Feb. 24) with much fanfare, though the enthusiasm may not have sustained.

Greeted by prime minister Narendra Modi at the Ahmedabad airport, Trump, his wife Melania, daughter Ivanka, and son-in-law Jared Kushner made their way to the Sardar Patel Stadium, witnessing a colourful roadshow along the way. The Trumps were the headliners of the Namaste Trump event, a show mirroring last September’s Howdy, Modi! event in Houston, Texas.

Each member of the audience inside the world’s biggest cricket stadium was provided white baseball caps with the event branding. Face masks featuring Trump, too, were distributed among them.

Trumps’ visit, which could culminate in a trade deal, though going by their speeches at the stadium, the two leaders are still holding their cards close.

Minutes before Trump’s arrival, the playlist inside the stadium changed to American blues and soft rock, at one point also playing the Village People’s 1978 hit, “Macho Man.”

Yet, the speeches by the two leaders, which together ran almost an hour, had little new to offer. Much of Modi’s monologue was a repeat of his Howdy, Modi! performance.

Friendly speak

Trump’s, as expected, was geared more towards the Gujarati American-Indians, an important vote bank for his reelection as president this November. He spoke at length about the “true” India-US friendship, turning briefly into generous adulation of Modi himself. Trump hailed Modi’s origins as a chaiwaala (tea-seller), “a worker in a cafeteria,” which he said underscored “what this country (India) is capable of.”

He then went on to list Modi’s many achievements: village electrification, internet access, and bringing “12 people out of poverty every minute.”

Interestingly, he also spoke about the US’s relationship with Pakistan. India has long viewed the US’s stance on Pakistan as not being critical enough over alleged terror funding and camps. Trump gloated over the American “victory” over the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and expressed his resolve to not let terror thrive.

Having previously called India a “Hindu nation,” Trump, this time, included Muslims in the list of the ethnicities inhabiting the country.

He hit the usual favourite Indian keynotes with Bollywood, cricket, and Diwali, a smattering of Hindu spiritual leader, Swami Vivekananda, and freedom fighter and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s favourite nationalist icon, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

However, that couldn’t hold the angsty crowd from staying back much longer. Midway through Trump’s speech, several pavilions emptied out. “I sat in the bus at 7am and it (is) now nearly 2pm. Plus I don’t understand what he’s saying,” Praveen Kumar, a resident of outer Ahmedabad, told Quartz in part Gujarati part Hindi. It didn’t help that Trump’s speech had a live Hindi transcript rolling on the large screen.

Even Modi’s “US-India friendship…long live, long live” towards the end didn’t perk up the mood.

The stadium in Ahmedabad began emptying during Trump’s and Modi’s speeches.
The stadium in Ahmedabad began emptying during Trump’s and Modi’s speeches.
Image: Manavi Kapur/Quartz

The only takeaway from Trump’s speech was a possible $3 billion defence cooperation deal, as well as some clarity on the India-US trade ties. The two countries have been hoping to arrive at a mutually beneficial trade tariff regime. For Trump, that hasn’t happened largely because Modi is a “tough negotiator.”