Trump arrived Monday morning in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where he is set to inaugurate the world’s largest cricket stadium. More than 100,000 people are expected to attend the “Namaste Trump” event, which will mirror last fall’s Texas “Howdy Modi” rally that drew 50,000 Indian-Americans to greet the Indian prime minister.
Crowds poured into Motera Stadium hours before the president’s arrival Monday morning as police, dressed in riot gear, looked on. The streets were lined freshly planted flowers and posters bearing the image of the two men.
Inside the stadium, a sea of white hats emblazoned with the U.S. and Indian flags and the Namaste Trump logo replaced the trademark red hats typically seen at Trump rallies. Signs higlighting their friendship ringed the stadium: “One momentous occasion. Two dynamic leaders,” one read.
Rishi Sharma, a 20-year-old university student from Ahmedabad, said she follows Trump on Twitter but to see him speak in person is a “great honor.”
“People over here think that he’s really powerful,” Sharma said about Trump’s appeal in India. “In India, there’s a culture where like everyone wants to go to the U.S. for career or for higher studies.”
The president and First Lady Melania Trump are expected to be feted in a whirlwind, two-day diplomatic spectacle aimed at highlighting U.S.-Indian relations amid escalating trade frictions between the two countries. But beyond the pomp and circumstance, even a limited trade announcement appears unlikely.
Talks ahead of the president’s visit soured over India’s protectionist policies and a scope of differences including e-commerce and digital trade, according to a senior administration official briefing reporters ahead of the trip. The president has also downplayed the prospect of a deal, suggesting it may come after the Nov. 3 election.
“We’re going to India and we may make a tremendous deal there. Maybe we’ll slow it down, we’ll do it after the election,” he said at an event in Las Vegas Friday.
The two countries have hit each other with retaliatory tariffs in recent months. The U.S. wants more access to Indian markets on agricultural products and medical devices while India is aiming to restore its preferential status in a trade program for developing countries.
The U.S. has sought to strengthen strategic ties with India in recent years as it looks to counter China’s rise and Trump’s trip is the latest signal in a greater strategic convergence, according to Milan Vaishnav, the head of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Despite all the differences, the ratcheting up of diplomatic and military attention to strategies that could counter Chinese expansionism is something that’s been pretty consistent,” he said.
Though trade may be off the table, the diplomatic talks may elicit a deal on defense, said Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Trump is trying to secure at least two arms deals worth over $3.5 billion for six Apache helicopters and 24 anti-submarine warfare helicopters.
“Because there’s no real trade agreement to announce, the defense procurements are important,” Ayres said. “These would be the first major procurements for the Trump administration. The naval helicopters sort of highlights the maritime navigation, maritime domain awareness, intelligence and that type of coordination between the two countries.”
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Modi has promised Trump grandeur and adulation that the president has boasted about in recent days.
“We’re not treated very well by India, but I happen to like Prime Minister Modi a lot,” Trump told reporters Tuesday when asked about whether a trade deal might emerge. “And he told me we’ll have seven million people between the airport and the event.”
That number jumped to 10 million by Thursday, when Trump again mentioned the upcoming “Namaste Trump” event at a rally in Colorado. While Trump’s estimate is millions more than that city’s population, tens of thousands of people are expected to line up along the 14-mile route stretching from the airport to Motera Stadium. City officials have erected 28 stages featuring performances by artists to showcase different regions of India.
Preparations for the extravaganza have already sparked controversy. Ahmedabad officials built a 4-foot wall along the route to the stadium, blocking the view of a slum of more than 2,000 people. Critics argue the wall was built to conceal the slum but Ahmedabad Municipal Commissioner Vijay Nehra said the decision to build the wall was made two months ago to prevent encroachments on sidewalks and the road.
The president will also visit the home of Mahatma Gandhi, India’s independence icon, in Ahmedabad before the rally. Later he will fly to Agra with his wife, Melania, for a sunset tour of the Taj Mahal, the 17th-century mausoleum he once named a hotel and casino after in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
In New Delhi on Tuesday, Trump will participate in ceremonial events, hold a meet-and-greet with U.S. embassy staffers and attend an event with Indian investors focused on companies that are investing in manufacturing in the U.S., according to a senior administration official.
Though Monday’s visit marks the president’s first official visit, Trump has maintained strong business ties to India through several luxury properties owned by the Trump Organization. Outside of North America, the Trump Organization holds the largest portfolio of real estate projects in India, according to Donald Trump Jr. That could be part of the reason for the president’s popularity in India compared to his divided approval ratings back home. About 56% of Indians approve of Trump’s foreign policies, according to the Pew Research Center, a figure that has quadrupled since he took office.
The high-profile trip also gives Trump a chance to look presidential on the world stage as he ramps up his re-election campaign back home. With an eye on November’s election, Trump’s visit signals India’s relationship as a priority to the 4 million Indian-Americans in the U.S., though the group is historically a reliable Democratic constituency.
But it also comes as Modi faces mounting pressure over an economic slowdown, a security crackdown in Kashmir and ongoing protests over his Bharatiya Janta Party’s Hindu-nationalist agenda, including a controversial new citizenship law that excludes Muslims.
“I do think this gives Modi some kind of diplomatic air cover,” Vaishnav said. “Undoubtedly, Trump will talk about what a great leader he is and how he’s making a tough call and taking a strong stance on illegal immigration, and that will help burnish Modi’s credentials.”
The president is expected to address the controversial policies by emphasizing a “shared tradition of democracy and religious freedom” both publicly and privately, according to a senior administration official.
“He will raise these issues, particularly the religious freedom issue, which is extremely important to this administration,” the official added.
Trump will join Modi and other Indian officials for a state dinner Tuesday night at the presidential palace before returning to Washington on an overnight flight. The nearly 36-hour trip is the shortest a U.S. president has taken to India since President Richard Nixon’s 22-hour stay in 1969.
Trump will become the seventh president to make the trip to India, but the first to enjoy an arena of support.