AHMEDABAD: Kicking off a whirlwind 36-hour visit to India that emphasises pageantry over policy, US President Donald Trump received a warm welcome Monday on the subcontinent, including a mega-rally, meant to reaffirm ties while providing enviable overseas imagery for a president in a re-election year.
As Air Force One touched down in Ahmedabad in western India, the final preparations were underway for that day’s enviable trio of presidential photo-ops: a visit to a former home of independence leader Mohandas Gandhi, a rally at the world’s second-largest stadium and a trip to the famed Taj Mahal.
Dancers in traditional attire and drummers lined the red carpet rolled out at the stairs of the presidential aircraft as Trump was poised to receive the raucous reception that has eluded him on many foreign trips, some of which have featured massive protests and icy handshakes from world leaders. In India, he instead received a warm embrace — literally — from the ideologically aligned and hug-loving Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) February 24, 2020
The sun-baked city of Ahmedabad jostled with activity the day before Trump’s arrival as workers cleaned roads, planted flowers and hoisted hundreds of billboards featuring the president and first lady Melania Trump.
Trump’s motorcade will travel amid cheers from a battery of carefully picked and vetted Modi loyalists and workers from his Bharatiya Janata Party who will stand for hours alongside the neatly manicured 22-kilometer stretch of road to accord the president a grand welcome on his way to the newly constructed stadium. Tens of thousands of police officers will be on hand to keep security tight and a new wall has come up in front of a slum, apparently to hide it from presidential passers-by.
— ANI (@ANI) February 24, 2020
Excited crowds began queuing at 4am to get into the brand new stadium for the “Namaste Trump” rally, payback for a “Howdy Modi” event in Houston last year in front of cheering Indian-Americans where Trump likened Modi to Elvis Presley.
“We hope the US liberalises its visa regime for skilled workers. They need it and India has too many young skilled and talented people,” said student Maunas Shastri.
Parts of the Taj Mahal, the white marble “jewel of Muslim art” according to Unesco, were given a mud-pack facial to remove stains while efforts were undertaken to lessen the stench of the adjacent river.
Trump told a rally on Thursday that “six to 10 million people” would be along the route of his motorcade, but this appears to have been a misunderstanding. Organisers said there will be tens of thousands.
But behind the platitudes and apparent warm rapport between the two leaders lies a fraught relationship worsened by the trade protectionism of both governments.
Trump has called India the “tariff king” and said before the visit that Asia’s third-largest economy has been “hitting us very, very hard for many, many years”.
Rather than a wide-ranging trade deal, reports said Trump and Modi may instead ink smaller agreements covering Harley-Davidson motorcycle imports and American dairy products, as well as defence pacts.
Also on the cards could be the supply of six nuclear reactors, the fruit of a landmark atomic accord in 2008.
An Indian government spokesman said the world’s fifth-largest economy “would not like to rush into a deal”, adding that the issues involved were “complicated”.
“The big missing deliverable at least for now seems likely to be the one both countries had sought, which is the trade deal,” Tanvi Madan from the Brookings Institution told reporters.
Other points of friction include defence, with Russia remaining India’s biggest supplier despite a possible $2.4-billion deal for American helicopters.
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 a recently passed citizenship law that critics say is anti-Muslim and which has led to ongoing protests across the nation.
A senior US administration official told reporters Trump would raise concerns about religious freedom in the Hindu-majority nation during the trip, “which is extremely important to this administration”.
“We are concerned … and I think that the president will talk about these issues in his meetings with Prime Minister Modi and note that the world is looking to India to continue to uphold its democratic traditions, respect for religious minorities,” the official added.
Trump also ridiculed Modi last year for “constantly telling me he built a library in Afghanistan”.
“That’s like five hours of what we spend… And we are supposed to say, ‘oh, thank you for the library’. I don’t know who is using it in Afghanistan,” Trump had said.