“Namaste Trump” And “Howdy Modi”: U.S.-India Relations And Trump’s Giant Rally In India

Last Monday, February 24th, President Trump visited India, where a rally of more than 100,000 awaited him in Ahmedabad. People wore cardboard masks with Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s faces on them. Some wore hats saying “Namaste Trump”—which loosely translates to “Welcome, Trump”.

The rally was held in the new Motera stadium, which is the largest cricket stadium in the world. The visit is part of an effort to establish commerce between the two nations, which have had strained trade relations in recent years. 

While a demonstration of the friendly relationship between the two leaders, who are quite similar in some ways, the 36 hours Trump spent in India may not lead to significant agreements. During the rally, Trump announced that the United States would be selling India military helicopters worth $3 billion, signaling increased military collaboration between the nations: “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.” Later it was announced that twenty-four helicopters worth $2.6 billion would be sold to India by Lockheed Martin.

As the two leaders fraternized, protests broke out hundreds of miles away in Delhi—two civilians and one policeman died. The protests were against the recent citizenship law which excludes Muslim refugees from faster citizenship pathways, and within the following days, they escalated to riots with multiple fatalities.

In Ahmedabad, the municipal government built a wall to hide the slums from President Trump’s motorcade, spending an estimated $14 million on the short visit. Student protestors took the streets against what they call a “fascist alliance” between the two leaders; Ajin Thomas, a demonstrator, noted that, “This kind of visit is part of a wider alliance between authoritarian and far-right political formations across the world.”

On the other hand, Trump holds an unusually high approval rating in India for a large country—over 50%. One local to Ahmedabad, Archna Singh, said, “This is a very exciting day for us, to have the US president here shows how India is a very important country.

This good relationship will make us stronger.” Trump has a high approval rating among Indian-Americans as well, and this visit is no doubt a strategic move in the upcoming election season. With 1.3 million people, the Indian-American population in the United States could be a key part of the vote, especially for a candidate with low approval ratings among minorities. Last year he held a “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston. 

The developing alliance between the two leaders (or friendship, as Modi would have it: “India-US relations are no longer just another partnership, it’s a far greater and closer relationship”) does feel based on their tendencies towards nationalism and even xenophobia. Both men have eroded the democracy in their respective nations with venomous attacks on the free press.

Modi’s moves to prioritize Hindu Indians at the expense of other ethnic groups mirror the Trump campaign pandering to the disillusioned white population, and both leaders have passed legislation undermining Muslim populations, whether it is the Muslim ban in the United States or the anti-Muslim immigration laws in India. 

To call the alliance “fascist” is premature; it erodes the language describing authoritarianism. However, the two leaders do lean towards ultra-nationalism and suppression of at least the media. Make no mistake: the friendship between the two leaders would not be characterized as well as building bridges between nations or extending the hands between disparate communities. These leaders build walls whether at the Mexico border or to hide the nation’s poor, adding to the tide of xenophobia and nationalism sweeping the world. Trump’s visit to India was carefully planned to build the military connections between the country, create a trade deal, and secure the Indian-American vote.