India Set to Stage an Epic Show, With Trump as the Star

AHMEDABAD, India — The roads are a hive of activity: women hoisting buckets of sand, work crews laying down fresh tar, an army of sweepers attacking debris and a new wall going up in front of a slum, apparently to hide it from passers-by.

President Trump is scheduled to land in the western city of Ahmedabad on Monday for his first presidential visit to India, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has planned an epic spectacle. The city is being scrubbed clean, and thousands upon thousands of Modi loyalists have been drafted to stand for hours on the sun-baked streets, there to shake flags and cheer for a president who loves nothing more than to draw a crowd.

It is the second act of a budding friendship between the two men, leaders of the world’s most populous democracies. Last year, Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi shared a stage in Houston at a rally called “Howdy, Modi!” This one is called “Namaste Trump,” which translates roughly as “Hello Trump.”

But beneath the projected bonhomie lies a pricklier reality. The United States and India are strategic partners, in no small part because of a mutual concern over China, but they still can’t agree on crucial issues. Even a small trade deal that was supposed to be the centerpiece of this trip has collapsed.

“They’ve been hitting us very hard for many, many years,” Mr. Trump said this week of India.

But he was quick to add: “I really like Prime Minister Modi.”

Mr. Modi seems to have enticed Mr. Trump to fly 8,000 miles and spend two days in India by his promise to stage a huge, tightly controlled show, with Mr. Trump at its center. The president has repeatedly claimed that he has been guaranteed a crowd of five million to seven million people lining the roads to greet him, and on Thursday he upped that to 10 million.

Ahmedabad officials said it would be nowhere near that, more like 100,000 along the road and another 100,000 waiting for Mr. Trump in a new cricket stadium, the world’s largest, where he will hold a rally.

Mr. Trump is popular in India, where he is seen as a strong leader, tough on terrorism, pro-business and friends with Mr. Modi. The two share a similar brand of divisive, populist politics. Still, Mr. Modi is taking no chances, fielding tens of thousands of police officers and packing the crowds with people he can trust to cheer enthusiastically for his guest.

Just to stand along the road that Mr. Trump’s motorcade will travel for a few minutes on Monday requires a special pass, given to carefully vetted party members, their allies and special groups handpicked by the government. This is a level of control Mr. Modi can deliver in India that is very different from Britain, for example, where Mr. Trump treaded carefully to avoid the optics of hostile crowds.

The way the Indian government has chosen to present the visit — not as a high-powered summit meeting but as “Namaste Trump,” essentially “Howdy, Modi!” Part 2 — seems to signal that it may shape up as more of a public relations exercise, albeit a memorable one, than anything else.

For both leaders, it’s a welcome distraction. Mr. Trump is eager to change the subject after his impeachment trial, and Mr. Modi would love a reprieve from protests over a new anti-Muslim citizenship law that has ratcheted up tensions between India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority.

Mr. Modi has also been widely criticized for his crackdown on Kashmir, the predominantly Muslim territory caught up in a generations-long dispute between Pakistan and India. By coming such a distance to see Mr. Modi, the president will be essentially giving him a stamp of approval at a time when his leadership is being called into question.

“There are more questions in the last six months about India’s commitment to democracy,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “than we’ve really seen in the history of the U.S.-Indian relationship.”

But, he added, “The good news for India is that the last person in the world likely to raise any of these issues is Donald Trump.”

The Trump family is involved in more real estate projects here than anywhere else outside of North America, and as Mr. Trump showed at the “Howdy, Modi!” rally in September, he’s eager to court the Indian-American vote. Their numbers aren’t huge — around three million — but they tend to be wealthy and voted overwhelmingly against Mr. Trump in 2016.

Traveling with the first lady, Melania Trump, Mr. Trump will tour several Indian cities, including a jaunt to the Taj Mahal. Where this visit begins, Ahmedabad, is about as safe, pro-Modi and, by extension, pro-Trump as India gets.

A large, dusty city, Ahmedabad is a stronghold for Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, and where a young Mr. Modi rose from humble roots up the ranks of nationalist groups that espoused a Hindu supremacist worldview.

At party headquarters this week, it was all smiles. “This is like a dream come true,” said Bharat Pandya, a B.J.P. spokesman.

American officials are trying to manage expectations. A few arms deals are likely to be announced, but the two sides are struggling on wider trade issues. They nearly worked out a deal in January that would have opened up India to more American farm products and restored preferential trade status for India. What happened next depends on whom you talk to.

American diplomats say the Indians began to act as if they were being taken advantage of and refused to budge on even small things, like reducing tariffs on walnuts. Indian officials say the Americans turned into bullies and made new demands, like a request to buy more turkeys, which Indians by and large do not eat. To help Mr. Trump court voters in key states, the Indians offered to buy more Wisconsin cranberries, Utah cherries and Midwest soybeans.

Both sides then began backing away from commitments, said several people with knowledge of the talks, and now Mr. Trump is suggesting that a final deal will have to wait until after the November election. Still, he’s eager to drum up business and plans to meet with Indian executives on Tuesday about investing in the United States.

India and the United States clearly need each other, but Ashutosh Varshney, the director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University, describes the relationship as “two wannabe friends.”

Even if some sticky issues remain, though, the visit clearly demonstrates India’s strategic significance.

“Any presidential visit is important by definition; it is the highest level of diplomacy we have,” said Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In Ahmedabad, no one is talking about geopolitics. Instead, the focus is on arranging the crowd.

Officials with Mr. Modi’s political party said that they, along with Hindu nationalist organizations and community groups, had been ordered to round up thousands of volunteers to line the road and fill the cricket stadium.

Hetal Amin, a fervent Modi supporter who runs a women’s organization, is bringing together 1,000 women to line a segment of the route from the airport. She said that officials were providing food, transport, passes and flags — but no money.

She said that when she sees pictures of Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi standing together, which are now everywhere in Ahmedabad, she sees “two men that God has sent to bring world peace.”

In a slum area along the route of the presidential motorcade, a new gray cement wall has mysteriously appeared, obscuring a warren of makeshift shelters. (The city has said that the wall was planned long ago to protect residents from stepping into a busy street.)

Many Indians now joke that Mr. Trump finally got his wall — and India paid for it.

Jeffrey Gettleman reported from Ahmedabad, India, and Vindu Goel from New Delhi. Maria Abi-Habib contributed from New Delhi, and Hari Kumar from Ahmedabad.

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