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Mon 24 Feb 2020 12:32 PM

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India rolls out the red carpet for President Donald Trump

India's Prime Minister Narendra is hoping the welcome in his home state of Gujarat will strengthen bonds with the US that have frayed over trade dispute

India rolls out the red carpet for President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump (2L) and First Lady Melania Trump (C) walk with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) upon their arrival at Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport in Ahmedabad. Image: AFP

Donald Trump received a red carpet welcome after Air Force One touched down Monday in Ahmedabad, India, kicking off a two-day visit to the country that’s is likely to be more about spectacle than substance.

In a day packed with pageantry for the American president - who’s made no secret of his predilection for large crowds and impressive displays - Trump was greeted on the tarmac by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The leaders then travelled the 22 kilometres (13.7 miles) to a new, 110,000 seat cricket stadium packed with cheering crowds.

Both leaders will speak at an event at the stadium billed as “Namaste Trump.” Modi and Trump appeared at a similar event - dubbed “Howdy, Modi!” - last year in Houston. All along the route performers from across India performed dances and school children and locals lined up behind barricades to wave American and Indian flags.

Modi is hoping the welcome in his home state of Gujarat will further solidify his friendship with Trump and strengthen bonds with the US that have frayed over trade disputes.

Numbers game

Trump has repeatedly boasted about the crowds he anticipates for the India roadshow. “I hear they’re going to have 10 million people. They say anywhere from six to 10 million people are going to be showing up along the route to one of the largest stadiums in the world, the largest cricket stadium in the world,” Trump told a campaign rally audience in Colorado Springs, Colorado, last week.

On Sunday, as he departed the White House, he told reporters “millions and millions of people” would attend the event.

“Some people say the biggest event they’ve ever had in India,” Trump said. “That’s what the prime minister told me; this will be the biggest event they’ve ever had.”

Indian officials estimated the crowd size would be closer to 100,000 -- the entire population of Ahmedabad was 5.6 million as of a 2011 census -- but still anticipated an impressive showing for the US leader.

Workers in the city have been furiously resurfacing streets and repainting overpasses in anticipation of Trump’s visit, and a 200-yard wall was erected to block the views of a slum near the airport. Billboards along the route feature images of the two leaders emblazoned with slogans promoting the visit.

“We’ve travelled for more than two hours from our village this morning. We walked three kilometres after getting off the bus that brought us here,” said Chetan Patel, a farmer and a volunteer with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. “The BJP party office issued passes,” Patel said, adding that at least one bus had come from every village in every district in the state.

“For me, it’s an opportunity to see Trump,” said Kriti Sinha, a teacher at a local government polytechnic institute. “How many times does an American president come to a smaller city like Ahmedabad?”

Investment hopes

Nimesh Barot, associate vice-president at Tata Consultancy Services, said excitement across the city.

“There are lots of Gujaratis in the U.S,” Barot, 47, said in Gujarat’s largest city. “They don’t mind the disturbance that this program will cause on a Monday — route diversions, schools and colleges have been closed — because President Trump’s visit will bring the world’s focus on Ahmedabad.”

Barot is part of the BAPS Swaminarayan religious sect that is popular among most Gujarati-speaking Hindu Indian Americans. The sect, which runs 140 temples across the US, is building a huge temple spread over 200 acres in Robinsville, New Jersey.

Between the airport and stadium, Trump stopped to visit the Gandhi Ashram at Sabarmati, a residence of Mahatma Gandhi during the Indian independence movement. Gandhi lived for years in a modest cottage at the site, famously departing in 1930 to lead the 24-day Dandi March in protest of the British monopoly on salt.

The flag-waving and cheering crowds on the streets were equalled by the scene at Sardar Patel Stadium, which will be the world’s largest cricket facility once a $100 million renovation is completed.

Foreign tours

The Indian prime minister has sought to leverage foreign leader tours into increased international visibility for Ahmedabad. He hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu there before Trump. Modi’s hope is to offer an alternative vision to the city’s association with deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2002 which occurred while he was the state’s chief minister.

Following the rally at the cricket stadium, Trump will fly to Agra, where he’s planning to visit the iconic Taj Mahal. The US president once owned a casino in Atlantic City whose design referenced the UNESCO World Heritage site.

Officials in Agra have also been busy ahead of Trump’s visit. Last week, the government released millions of litres of additional water from the canal network that feeds the Yamuna River in an effort to mask pollution that plagues the city.

A tougher problem might be the pervasive monkey population that roams the grounds of the nearly four-century-old mausoleum, which along with other stray animals have occasionally attacked tourists. Security officials have been armed with hand-held slingshots to ward off monkeys, India Today reported.

Trump will then depart for Delhi, where he’ll spend the night before a series of meetings with government officials and business leaders on Tuesday. He’s expected to conclude his trip with a dinner at the presidential palace.

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