President Trump told cheering throngs in India on Monday that the U.S. wants to forge even stronger economic and military ties with the world’s biggest democracy, a message that was aimed partly at peeling some of the 4 million Indian Americans in the U.S. away from the Democratic Party.
The president and first lady Melania Trump were greeted with stunning displays of brightly colored pageantry on their first visit to the nation of 1.3 billion people. Tens of thousands of flag-waving spectators lined their motorcade route in Ahmedabad in western India, and the streets were dotted with dozens of billboards featuring images of the president and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, celebrating their friendship with slogans such as “Two dynamic personalities, one momentous occasion.”
Their destination was a packed cricket stadium, the largest in the world, where Mr. Trump told roughly 125,000 people that the U.S. wants to expand its “cherished partnership” with India.
“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 America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people,” the president said.
The Trumps later visited the iconic Taj Mahal in Agra before moving on to the capital of New Delhi, where the president and Mr. Modi are scheduled to hold talks Tuesday and sign a deal for India to buy military helicopters from the U.S.
Mr. Trump lavished praise on India and Indian Americans in his stadium speech, referring to the “splendor” of Indian culture and calling Americans of Indian ancestry “truly spectacular people.” He was introduced by Mr. Modi, who held aloft Mr. Trump’s hand on the stage in victory as the stadium roared its approval.
The spectacle was aimed in part at Indian Americans who are increasingly being won over by Mr. Trump, said A.D. Amar, a professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey who has led the Indian Americans for Trump movement.
“Obviously, this is the election year, and Donald Trump is a political entity. So definitely, that does play a part,” Mr. Amar said in an interview.
An estimated 400,000 more Indian Americans are in the U.S. than in 2016, when Mr. Trump received about 20% support from the group. As a voting bloc, Indian Americans could make a difference this year in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Florida, Mr. Amar said.
“This year, this time, when the election takes place in November, I believe we will have more Indian Americans going for Trump,” he said. “During the four years of Trump, I have seen many conversions. I’m talking about from interacting with Indian Americans in several states.”
But he added that Mr. Trump’s visit also was motivated by his promise in 2016 “to be the best friend of India in the White House.”
“He actually stuck to that and he delivered it,” Mr. Amar said. “Trump has done a lot for India. India’s problems overlap with the problems that Trump highlighted for the United States — terrorism, the problem of the illegal immigrants. India is also facing problems with its big neighbor, China.”
Mr. Trump acknowledged on Monday that he won’t be signing a trade deal with Mr. Modi during the visit, calling his counterpart “a very tough negotiator.”
“We are in the early stages of discussion for an incredible trade agreement to reduce barriers of investment between the United States and India,” the president 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.”
Mr. Trump received some of the loudest cheers when he spoke about U.S. efforts to fight terrorism from Pakistan, India’s historic adversary on its western border.
“Both of our countries have been hurt by the pain and turmoil of terrorism and that terrorism brings,” the president said. “The United States and India are firmly united in our ironclad resolve to defend our citizens from the threat of radical Islamic terrorism. For this reason, since taking office, my administration is working in a very positive way with Pakistan to crack down on the terrorist organizations and militants that operate on the Pakistani border.”
The president, who said the helicopter deal with India will be worth $3 billion, also said Washington should become the “premier” defense partner for India, which is increasingly worried about China’s expansionist aims in the region.
“Together we will defend our security and sovereignty, and protect a free and open Indo-Pacific region for our children and for many generations to come,” Mr. Trump said.