President Donald Trump anticipates a hero’s welcome in India on Monday, but the glitzy events filling his two-day visit with PM Narendra Modi will paper over growing trade frictions.
The visit is intended to strengthen the personal relationship between Trump and Modi, a fellow nationalist whose country is regarded by the US as an important regional counterweight against China.
And for Modi, the visit may distract from controversies over a new citizenship law that his critics say discriminates against Muslims, as well as a souring domestic economy.
Trump, with his re-election campaign in top gear, has sought out large, friendly crowds at football games, professional fights and the biggest auto race in America to ensure he’s never far from the minds of American voters.
Modi plans to provide Trump a similar spectacle on Monday in Ahmedabad in the prime minister’s home state of Gujarat. Trump says the Indian leader has promised that millions of people will line 22 kilometres (13.7 miles) of roads between the airport and a new, 110,000-seat cricket stadium where both leaders will speak.
The event is billed as “Namaste Trump” and is to be followed by a presidential visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra before official meetings on Tuesday.
“The visit is a low-risk and characteristically showy distraction from domestic controversies” for the populist leaders, Ian Hall, professor at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, and author of the book “Modi and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy,” said.
Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said last week that “tens of thousands” of onlookers and artists showcasing performing arts from different states and territories are expected to greet the president in Ahmedabad.
Trump predicted that the crowds in India will make his domestic campaign rallies, typically attended by 10,000 to 20,000 people, “look like peanuts from now on.”
The president’s visit might boost his appeal among Indian American voters, an emerging voting bloc in the US that has traditionally backed Democrats. Trump compared Modi to Elvis Presley last year after “Howdy Modi,” a Houston event arranged for the prime minister’s visit that drew about 50,000 Indian Americans.
“Politically I’m sure there’s at least a modest dividend to be achieved on that,” Richard M Rossow, an India expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.
“We’re going to India, and we may make a tremendous deal there, or maybe we’ll slow it down. We’ll do it after the election,” Trump said in Las Vegas.
The leaders are expected to deepen their nations’ defense ties, with the possible announcement of India’s $2.6 billion purchase of Lockheed Martin Corp naval helicopters.