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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Trump's India trip: Big on pomp, light on substance, marred by riots

A store is engulfed in flames amid mob

A store is engulfed in flames amid mob violence in New Delhi, India, on Tuesday. Deadly clashes over India's citizenship law broke out for several days, coinciding with President Donald Trump's state visit. Credit: AP

The adviser once seen as shaping President Donald Trump's right-leaning nationalism makes no secret of his esteem for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

"I started studying Modi in 2013," former Trump aide Steve Bannon told the Times of India in July. "As a nationalist, Modi was a Trump before Trump. He said, 'I put India and India’s interest first,' and I admire that."

Both heads of state now share a thirst for the transactional and for gaudy shows of adulation. So the more difficult details behind Trump's photo opportunities in India last week seemed to bother neither Trump nor Modi.

Indians gathered for a giant Trump stadium greeting called "Namaste Trump," a follow-up to a "Howdy Modi" stadium rally last year in Texas.

Cheers, puzzled stares and online mockery greeted Trump's stadium speech after he butchered the names of India's top cricket players as well as the term for tea seller.

Did this matter? It seemed only to reflect the American leader's well-known carelessness with language.

Also glossed over were recent reports that Trump once made comments to Modi showing the president didn't even know India has a border with China, which is 2,100 miles long.

No trade agreement was signed on the trip, but Trump made one of his perpetual promises of an "incredible deal" to come and announced India's latest purchase of more than $3 billion of U.S. military equipment.

The powers-that-be tried to downplay the week's more horrifying events. Before the visit, walls were built along routes Trump would travel that effectively hid slums from view, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Mob violence erupted outside the protected bubble of celebration that Modi arranged. The Indian capital of New Delhi saw several nights of riots. The worst disturbances there in decades left more than 40 dead and at least 200 injured.

The clashes grew out of demonstrations for and against a new law imposing a religious test for citizenship that is tilted against accepting more Muslims, who have always been a significant minority in India.

“We did talk about religious freedom," Trump told reporters after a meeting with Modi. "And I will say that the prime minister was incredible in what he told me. He wants people to have religious freedom and very strongly.”

Trump said in his last campaign that "Islam hates us" and has sought to crack down on U.S. immigration from mostly-Muslim nations.

Of India's citizenship law, backed by Hindu nationalists, Trump said: "I don't want to discuss that. I want to leave that to India, and hopefully they're going to make the right decision for the people.”

Blasted by critics over the violence, Modi appealed for "calm and normalcy."

Later last week, Trump campaign officials revealed a digital ad buy aimed at Indian Americans — who often lean Democratic — on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and streaming services.

One ad features Trump and first lady Melania Trump at the Taj Mahal — the kind of image Modi and his elite guests would like everyone to see from an otherwise turbulent week. 

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