Crowds were lining up outside a giant stadium in western India on Monday ahead of US President Donald Trump’s first visit to the country during which the two sides will aim to reset relations that have been buffeted by a trade spat.
Trump lands in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, a little before noon local time. A road show and a huge reception is planned in a 110,000-seat cricket stadium, said to be the world’s largest.
Modi, who has built a personal rapport with Trump, is pulling out the stops for Trump’s visit even though a trade deal that Washington was pushing for has run into problems.
The rally in Ahmedabad will be a larger version of the “Howdy Modi” rally that Trump and Modi jointly appeared at in Houston to a jubilant crowd of 50,000 Indian Americans last year, where Trump likened Modi to Elvis Presley for his crowd-pulling power.
Many roads were blocked off in Ahmedabad, shops shut and police stationed on rooftops and balconies. School children boarded buses bound for the stadium shouting “We love Trump”. Others were carrying Indian flags.
Trump, who seeks re-election in November, routinely gets the biggest audience of any candidate in the US presidential race, ranging up to 20,000 or so, and he has been grudgingly admiring of Modi’s ability to get a bigger crowd than him.
From Ahmedabad, he heads to Agra for a sunset visit to the iconic Taj Mahal mausoleum, before landing in New Delhi for a summit with Indian officials and business leaders.
But the prospects of resolving a wrangle over trade that led to both countries imposing retaliatory tariffs remains elusive. Indian and US officials have both said progress is unlikely to be made until after the US election.
"I look forward to being with the people of India," Trump said as he left the White House on his first trip to the world's biggest democracy.
"We're going to have many millions and millions of people," he said. "I hear it's going to be a big event, some people say the biggest event they ever had in India. That's what the prime minister told me."
He also tweeted in Hindi ahead of his arrival.
India has been embroiled in protests over its Citizenship Amendment Act. It provides a fast track to naturalisation for some migrants who entered the country illegally while fleeing religious persecution, but excludes Muslims, raising fears that the country is moving toward a religious citizenship test. Passage has prompted large-scale protests and a violent crackdown.
Typically, Trump has not publicly rebuked world leaders for human rights abuses during his overseas trips. But one senior administration official said the US is concerned about the situation and that Trump will tell Modi the world is looking to India to continue to uphold its democratic traditions and respect religious minorities.
Trump is also expected to weigh on occupied Kashmir, which has been under a lockdown since August 5 when India unilaterally annexed the territory. But there is likely to be little public divide between Trump and Modi, two leaders with a similar love of bravado and adoration.