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Modi bets on bolstering his image amidst slumping economy and protests

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All set for Trump India rally

FILE – In this Feb. 18, 2020, file photo, Indian women walk past a hoarding showing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump to welcome them ahead of their visit to Ahmadabad, India. Trump is scheduled to visit the city during his Feb. 24-25 India trip. American dairy farmers, distillers and drug makers have been eager to break into India, the world’s seventh-biggest economy but a tough-to-penetrate colossus of 1.3 billion people. Looks like they’ll have to wait. Talks between the Trump administration and New Delhi, intended to forge at least a modest deal in time for President Donald Trump’s visit there, appear to have fizzled. Barring some last-minute dramatics — always possible with the Trump White House — a U.S.-India trade pact is months away, if not longer. For now, the failure to reach an accord may reflect not so much the differences between Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the similarities. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki, File)

AHMEDABAD, India, Feb 22, (AP): A festive mood has enveloped Ahmedabad in India’s northwestern state of Gujarat ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting there on Monday with President Donald Trump, whom he’s promised millions of adoring fans.

The rally in Modi’s home state may help displace his association with deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2002 that landed him a US travel ban. It may also distract Indians, at least temporarily, from a slumping economy and ongoing protests over a new citizenship law that excludes Muslims. But beyond the pageantry and symbolism of the visit, experts expect little of substance to be achieved for either side. “For Modi, Trump’s visit to India offers a useful distraction from the domestic political tumult playing out across the country,” said Micheal Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the US-based Wilson Center. “I don’t think the visit will have much impact on domestic politics in either country.”

To welcome Trump, who last year likened Modi to Elvis Presley for his crowd-pulling power at a joint rally the two leaders held in Houston, the Gujarat government has spent almost $14 million on ads blanketing the city that show them holding up their hands, flanked by the Indian and US flags. It also scrambled to build a wall to hide a slum along a road that Trump and first lady Melania Trump will take, caught stray dogs, planted exotic trees and is rushing to finish a cricket stadium in time for Trump’s arrival. The buzz around the event has resonated in Ahmedabad, a city of 7.2 million people divided between those proud of Modi, a Gujarati tea seller’s son who went on to hold India’s highest office, and those who angrily remember his term as the state’s chief minister, when at least 1,000 people were killed in the anti-Muslim riots.

Trump has said Modi has promised between 6 million and 10 million people will turn up for their rally in the city, although authorities expect closer to 100,000. A big trade deal that both sides had hoped to sign also seems increasingly unlikely.

India has tried to advance cooperation on a range of defense and strategic issues with the US, but Indian tariffs remain a major sticking point. “We’re not treated very well by India,” Trump recently told reporters. Still, with India’s economy registering its worst slowdown in a decade, expectations of a trade deal remain high in India. “It would be embarrassing if the two countries cannot manage to strike a modest deal,” said Joshua White, who served in former president Barack Obama’s White House as senior adviser and director for South Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

The India-US relationship, apart from trade tensions, has also experienced strain because of Washington’s desire to use India as a geopolitical buffer with China, while at the same time some members of Congress are criticizing its actions in disputed Kashmir. A recent letter from four senators to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the Modi government’s decision to scrap the semi-autonomy and statehood of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim- majority region, last year.

Trump has offered to mediate between India and Pakistan, both of which claim Kashmir, an offer India has repeatedly rejected. While experts aren’t optimistic that any substantial gains will be achieved by the visit, they see plenty of parallels between the leaders’ planned rally in Ahmedabad, dubbed “Namaste Trump,” which translates to “Greetings, Trump,” and last year’s “Howdy Modi” event in Houston. With fl ashy Bollywood musical and dance numbers, the Houston rally was the Indian-American diaspora’s grand welcome to Modi after his landslide reelection victory in 2019. But beneath the extravaganza, it was a political rally for the two nationalist leaders, organized by a nonprofit with Hindu nationalist links

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