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Modi rolls out red carpet for Trump's official visit

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At a huge rally at a mega cricket stadium, Mr Trump praised Mr Modi as an "exceptional leader, a great champion of India" in front of a crowd of around 100,000.

Ahmedabad

US President Donald Trump received a red-carpet welcome in the world's biggest democracy on Monday, addressing a huge rally at a mega cricket stadium on a maiden official visit to India that is big on photo opportunities but likely short on substance.

Trade tensions have grown between the US and India, the world's fifth-biggest economy, as Mr Trump's "America First" drive collides with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's protectionist "Make in India" mantra.

While sharing concerns about China and deepening their defence ties, India has bristled at Mr Trump's offer to mediate in the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, and at unease in Washington over a citizenship law criticised as anti-Muslim.

Visiting Mr Modi's home state of Gujarat, Mr Trump and First Lady Melania visited independence hero Mahatma Gandhi's ashram, where Mr Modi gifted him a "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" three wise monkeys statue.

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The billionaire and the tea seller's son then headed to a new cricket stadium - the biggest in the world - where Mr Trump heaped praise on Modi as an "exceptional leader, a great champion of India" in front of a crowd of around 100,000. "America loves India. America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people," Mr Trump told the ecstatic crowd, many in Trump-emblazoned baseball caps. Name-checking Bollywood films and Indian cricketers, Mr Trump - with an eye on elections in November - paid tribute to the four-million-strong Indian-American diaspora as "truly special people".

"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," Mr Modi said.

"The whole world knows what President Trump has done to fulfil the dreams of America." Excited spectators had queued from 4.00 am for the "Namaste Trump" rally, reciprocating a "Howdy Modi" event in Houston last year. "Events like these will galvanise people to start to cooperate in new initiatives," said Pramit Maakoday, an Indian-American in the stadium.

Later on Monday, Mr Trump and First Lady Melania flew to the Taj Mahal for sunset before the main official talks on Tuesday.

Behind the platitudes and blossoming bromance between the two leaders lies a fraught relationship worsened by the trade protectionism of both governments. Mr Trump has called India the "tariff king", and said before his visit that Asia's third-largest economy had been "hitting us very, very hard for many, many years".

Rather than a wide-ranging trade deal, reports said Mr Trump and Mr Modi may instead sign smaller agreements covering products such as Harley-Davidson motorcycles and US dairy products. "We are in the early stages of discussions for an incredible trade agreement," Mr Trump told the rally, calling Mr Modi a "very tough negotiator". The two men were expected to sign a number of defence deals during the visit, and to discuss the supply of six nuclear reactors.

Russia, however, remains India's biggest supplier in arms, with India having agreed to buy Moscow's US$5.4-billion S-400 missile defence system despite the threat of US sanctions. The US has pressured India to stop buying Iranian oil, while US businesses have raised concerns over New Delhi's plans to force foreign firms to store Indian consumers' personal data inside the country.

In Washington, India has faced criticism over its clampdown in restive Kashmir, and the recently passed citizenship law that has led to ongoing protests across the nation, including in New Delhi on Sunday and Monday.

A senior US administration official told reporters Mr Trump would raise concerns about religious freedom in the Hindu-majority nation during the trip, "which is extremely important to this administration". AFP

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