AHMEDABAD, India – The 49-year-old tailor has lived in this western Indian city for his entire life, but he has never seen anything quite like this.
Ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit to India next week, workers have descended on his modest neighborhood, resurfacing roads, laying concrete sidewalks where none existed, fixing streetlamps and painting an overpass with fresh white paint. On a recent afternoon, they gingerly placed row upon row of saplings into a barren road divider.
“It’s fantastic,” said Hamir Vaghela, surveying the activity around him. Trump “should come once every six months.”
Trump arrives Monday for his first visit as president to the world’s largest democracy, and although he is only staying for 36 hours, the Indian government is leaving nothing to chance. The iconic Taj Mahal is being buffed and scrubbed before a sunset visit by Trump and the first lady. The world’s largest cricket stadium – so new it is not officially open – will host a rally for up to 120,000 people dubbed “Namaste Trump,” or Hello Trump.
Other preparations are more controversial: In Ahmedabad, municipal authorities have raised a 6-foot-high, 200-yard wall in front of a slum along a road Trump may take near the airport. The city says the timing is a coincidence, but residents are not convinced. On earlier VIP visits, workers put up curtains on the route, they say.
“Now the number one country is coming, so as per the number one standards, they built the wall,” said Vikram Rathod, 40, a laborer who lives in the slum. “They have decided that poor people should not be seen.”
Walls notwithstanding, Trump will likely receive an enthusiastic reception in India, even if it is not quite as large as he hopes. Trump told reporters Tuesday that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised there would be “7 million people” on the streets of Ahmedabad to greet him. That is roughly the entire population of the city, and the true figure for the motorcade route will likely be closer to 100,000, according to a municipal official.
Indians generally have a positive view of Trump. It is one of just six countries where a majority of those surveyed approve of his handling of world affairs, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. (The other five are the Philippines, Israel, Kenya, Nigeria and Poland.)
Trump benefits from the fact that many Indians have a “very positive attitude toward Americans,” as well as the “celebrity component,” said Milan Vaishnav, who heads the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Other than a few missteps – such as his offer to mediate the Kashmir dispute – Trump has been “broadly favorable to India’s regional interests,” he said.
Modi has cultivated a relationship with Trump even as tensions over trade have flared. Last year, Modi invited Trump to a large rally he held in Houston (it was called “Howdy, Modi”) where the two men clasped hands and described one another admiringly. India and the United States have intensified their military and security cooperation in recent years as both countries cast a wary eye toward China.
It appears few substantive accomplishments will be announced during Trump’s visit. India and the United States have failed to conclude even a minor agreement to resolve some of their trade differences, despite more than a year of negotiations and repeated assertions that a deal was close. India’s Cabinet earlier this week approved the purchase of 24 Lockheed Martin military helicopters worth $2.4 billion.
But the lack of concrete achievements may not matter for either leader. For both Trump and Modi, the trip is a respite from domestic politics and a chance to promote their image as statesmen – as well as a potential opportunity to deepen the ties between the two nations. Modi is facing the most significant show of opposition to his government since he took office in 2014, with protests continuing against a citizenship law that critics say is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Trump will be the first sitting American president to visit Modi’s home state of Gujarat, the place where Modi rose to political power. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi earned a reputation as a business-friendly leader who did not tolerate corruption. He also presided over the worst communal violence in recent Indian history, when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in 2002. A special investigating team later cleared Modi of involvement in the riots.
Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat with a newly redeveloped waterfront along the Sabarmati river, is Modi’s favorite place to bring visiting leaders, including Xi Jinping of China and Shinzo Abe of Japan. Now billboards in the city feature photos of Trump and Modi (“Two dynamic personalities, one momentous occasion”). Ahmedabad is also home to the ashram where Mohandas Gandhi spent 13 years of his life. Unlike other dignitaries, Trump will probably skip the ashram but stop instead at a memorial to Gandhi in New Delhi on Feb. 25.
If Trump “wants to pick up a Gandhian message, he will need to find some quiet moments, and remain silent, and reflect on Gandhi’s thought of crossing out the big ‘I’,” said Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of the revered independence leader and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Trump could focus “on how to bring a polarized people together and how to diminish hate instead of encouraging it.”
On a recent sunny afternoon, Vijay Nehra, the municipal commissioner of Ahmedabad, was juggling television interviews and calls from his superiors. He is overseeing the “roadshow” – the crowds and performers who will line Trump’s route through the city.
Nehra said there will be artists from all over the country performing on specially-built stages, filmed by nearly 100 camera crews from India’s state-owned broadcaster. It will be an “unprecedented event” for the city, he said. But “we would not like to be boastful in claiming that it will be the biggest roadshow ever in the world or something like that.”
Nehra denied that the building of the wall in front of the slum was connected to Trump’s visit. The slum was “overflowing and proliferating on the sidewalk and on the road,” he said, so the city put out a tender to build a wall there. The fact that it is being completed in the days before the president’s arrival is a “coincidence,” he said.
Reshma Saraniya, 29, has lived in the slum, a broken-down collection of homes with corrugated tin roofs, her whole life. Earlier this month, she was at her job at a nearby hotel when neighbors called her to say the city authorities had arrived to demolish about 20 huts, including the one where she had lived with her 11-year-old son for the past two years. Saraniya knew a demolition could happen, she said, her voice vibrating with emotion, but she received no warning it was imminent. Now there is ragged earth and a cement wall where she used to live.
Aswathy Jwala, an activist from the southern state of Kerala, traveled 1,400 miles by train to mount a one-woman protest in solidarity with the slum residents. She perched on a ledge near the entrance of the slum with a handwritten sign. “Don’t hide our India,” it said. “Work toward making it better.” She pledged to stay until Trump arrived but expected police to detain her first.
The following day, Jwala was gone. But the wall was almost complete, screened by rows of trees in pots, ready to welcome the American president.
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The Washington Post’s Mahesh Langa contributed to this report.