Children from an art school make paintings of U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of his India visit, in Mumbai, India.
Children from an art school make paintings of U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of his India visit, in Mumbai, India, Feb. 21, 2020.

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE - U.S. President Donald Trump said Monday that India "will always hold a special place in our hearts" as he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised each other in addresses before a crowd of more than 100,000 people who gathered for a "Welcome, Trump" rally in the city of Ahmedabad.

The event was part of a 36-hour visit Trump is making to the country, one he noted in his speech involved an 8,000-mile trip.

The president began by uttering the Indian greeting of "Namaste."

"America loves India.  America respects India.  And America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people," Trump said.

He celebrated India as a successful democracy, and called the country a natural friend of the United States.

Trump's visit began with a red carpet-welcome at the airport in Ahmedabad, in Modi's home state of Gujarat.  Thousands of people then cheered along a motorcade route as Trump and Modi traveled a short distance to a stop at Mahatma Gandhi's ashram.

A small army of workers was deployed ahead of Trump's visit to Ahmedabad to build a 400-meter-long wall along the motorcade route to block the view of where poor people live. The hurried beautification project also includes the placement of about 150,000 flowerpots.

"It will be similar to the landmark 'Howdy, Modi!' event hosted by the Indian American community in honor of Prime Minister Modi during his visit to Houston in September 2019, in which President Trump participated," India's foreign secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, told reporters in the capital, New Delhi.

"The visit will primarily be one for pomp, show and symbolism," said Aparna Pande, the director of the Hudson Institute Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia. "It matters to two nationalist populist leaders that they can demonstrate to their domestic audience and to the world that they have a reliable partner and ally."

Trump's visit will not end with an anticipated big trade deal between the United States and India.

"I'm really saving the big deal for later on," Trump told reporters last week. "I don't know if it'll be done before the election, but we'll have a very big deal with India."

There is mutual agreement on dozens of elements for the pact, but several contentious sectors are unresolved, including medical devices, according to sources close to the talks.

"Whether or not there will be an announcement on a trade package is, really, wholly dependent upon what the Indians are prepared to do," a senior administration official told reporters on Friday. "That said, we have a number of significant commercial deals, which are of great significance that we're very pleased to announce in a number of key sectors."

FILE - President Donald Trump waves to supporters upon his arrival in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

First trip to India

On his maiden voyage to the South Asian country, Trump is likely to announce a sale worth several billion dollars for military helicopters and, possibly, a missile defense system, amid rising mutual concern about China's military expansion, which has prompted closer defense cooperation between Washington and New Delhi.

Indian officials are said to be perplexed that U.S. officials halted trade negotiations just prior to the Trump visit, expressing a view that Washington pursued brinkmanship that failed in the face of a more patient India, which is the world's fifth biggest economy.  

"There's no great hurry here" to finalize a trade pact, retired veteran senior Indian diplomat T.P. Sreenivasan in India told VOA.

"I was personally a little bit surprised that the two sides weren't able to get this deal done," Jeff Smith, South Asia research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said.

WATCH: Related video by VOA's Patsy Widakuswara

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Pre-trip beautification effort

After the stadium event in Ahmedabad and before heading to New Delhi, the president and first lady Melania Trump will make a quick visit to the country's most famous tourist attraction – the Taj Mahal.

Indian media reported Agra will be on lockdown for the visit, although there is concern about controlling the menacing monkeys roaming the grounds of the 17th-century Mughal marble mausoleum.

"The forest department has been requested to ensure that the monkeys stay away from the Taj during Donald Trump's visit," Archaeological Survey of India Superintending Archaeologist Vasant Kumar Swarnkar was quoted telling India Today.

In India's capital, bilateral talks are to focus on contemporary concerns.

Indian officials could raise Trump's hard line on immigration.

"They view the immigration issue -- whether it is offering visas to students or the H-1B highly skilled visas or the green card issue -- as becoming worse in the last four years," Pande told VOA.

Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel patrol at the historic Taj Mahal premises, where U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump are expected to visit, in Agra, India, Feb. 20, 2020.

It is uncertain whether Trump will discuss the issue of Kashmir.

Six months after Modi ended Kashmir's special status under India's constitution, local politicians there remain detained and internet service is restricted.

Trump "is not always very thoughtful when he talks about such issues, particularly Kashmir. So that's a bee in his bonnet and it's going to come up in some form," Sreenivasan, a former Indian ambassador to the United Nations, predicted.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has called for Trump to help resolve the dispute between the two nuclear-armed neighbors over Kashmir, something the U.S. president has previously indicated he is willing to do. But Modi has strongly rebuffed offers from third parties to mediate.

Indian officials are apprehensive about Trump commenting on the Kashmir issue during the visit.

"He might say that ‘I'm a great deal-maker and I can resolve Kashmir.' But let's hope he doesn't," Pande, of the Hudson Institute, said.

Children from an art school make paintings of U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of his India visit, in Mumbai, India, Feb. 21, 2020.

Some members of the U.S. Congress are also expressing concern about Modi's controversial move to give Indian citizenship to immigrants from three neighboring countries – unless they are Muslims.

Trump, during the India visit, will raise such matters, particularly the religious freedom issue, which is extremely important to this administration," according to a senior administration official.

"Attempts to lecture, coerce, punish, intervene in India's affairs have traditionally not been particularly effective," Smith, of the Heritage Foundation, said.

Trump will be the fourth consecutive U.S. president to travel to India, continuing the shift in allegiance by Washington to Delhi from India's arch-rival and neighbor.

Khan, after a recent meeting with Trump during the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, said the U.S. president also promised to visit Pakistan soon.

If "there is no complementary visit to Pakistan or no side agreement on some other way to assuage concerns there, then I think Pakistan will take it as a slight," said Richard Russow, senior adviser for U.S.-India policy studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

VOA White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.