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For Trump's visit to India, plenty of spectacle but low expectations on policy

The president's agenda includes a stadium speech and large crowds, but officials say a trade agreement is unlikely.
Image: Military personnel patrol near a sign featuring President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad on Feb. 23, 2020.
Military personnel patrol near a sign featuring President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad, India, on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020.Aijaz Rahi / AP

NEW DELHI — When President Donald Trump arrived in India on Monday, he was met with a spectacle his host hopes will win him over.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has organized a two-day state visit that includes potentially one of the largest crowds Trump has ever addressed — at a cricket stadium that holds 110,000 people. Modi has branded the appearance "Namaste Trump."

He's also promised that adoring, and carefully arranged, crowds will turn out as Trump's motorcade moves through Ahmedabad — a hometown of both Modi and Mohandas K. Gandhi — then for a tour of the Taj Mahal, and finally in New Delhi, where the president will spend the bulk of his time.

"We're going to have millions and millions of people," Trump told reporters Sunday before he left for India. "I hear it's going to be a big event. Some people say the biggest event they've ever had in India. That's what the prime minister told me."

But the lavish focus on the man and the pageantry, not the substance, underscores how little headway the world's two largest democracies have been able to make on a key point of tension — trade. India and the U.S. have been engaged in a simmering trade battle, and the governments have not been able to narrow differences in time for Trump and Modi to announce a deal during the trip.

"We want to address a bunch — a lot — of concerns, and we're not quite there yet," said a senior administration official briefing reporters on the president's trip. "We will likely have discussion with the prime minister about these concerns and continue the discussion beyond this visit."

Among the concerns are India's "Make in India" initiative, which the U.S. sees as furthering India's protectionism, its increased tariffs and its regulations on e-commerce, officials said.

The two leaders are expected to announce some new agreements on India's purchase of military equipment from U.S. companies and possibly on energy cooperation, officials said. The U.S. and India have a shared interest in countering China's growing influence.

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It will be Trump's first visit to India as president, although his family business has significant dealings in the country. The trip, coming as he intensifies his re-election effort, also marks Trump's first time out of the U.S. since the Senate acquitted him in its impeachment trial.

He's expected to find a warm welcome, not only by Modi's design but also because his popularity in India is relatively high. A recent Pew Research study found that 56 percent of Indians have confidence in Trump on world affairs. Of the 32 countries surveyed, India was just one of a handful where a majority of people said they feel that way.

India's television stations have been running nonstop programming under the banner "MODI-TRUMP SUMMIT, THE BUILD UP." Broadcasts have run explainers on everything from each of Trump's five children to the limousine he'll be shuttled around in and the gold and silver cutlery used for U.S presidential visits to India. They're also promoting the Twitter hashtag #ModiTrumpCard.

"The way that they're setting this meeting up, I think they're reducing as much as they can the chance that there's going to be some kind of diplomatic incident," said Richard Rossow, a senior adviser at the U.S-India policy institute at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Modi is one of the few democratically elected world leaders whom Trump considers himself to have a personal chemistry with: Both are populist leaders with nationalist messages, sharp critics of the media and hard-line on immigration.

Modi has taken steps to make it harder for Muslims to obtain citizenship. Those policies have increased tension and prompted protests in India, as well as drawn international criticism. A show of support from the U.S. president comes at an opportune time for Modi, who has cracked down on the free press in India.

Trump recently expanded his "travel ban" to include more Muslim-majority countries. He's repeatedly threatened the free press in the U.S. And, like Modi, Trump has also pushed a more protectionist trade agenda.

A senior administration official, briefing reporters on the president's trip, said the U.S. is "concerned" with some of the steps Modi has taken against Muslims. The official said Trump will raise democracy and religious freedom issues in his public remarks, as well as privately with Modi, "and note that the world is looking to India to continue to uphold its democratic traditions, respect for religious minorities."

On the issue of Kashmir — which Trump has previously offered to mediate, although India is not interested — the president will urge India and Pakistan to maintain stability, officials said. But he's also unlikely to criticize Modi's crackdown on Muslims in the region between India and Pakistan.

The official 12-member U.S. delegation includes the acting chief of staff, the national security adviser, the White House press secretary, the U.S. ambassador to India, the secretaries of commerce and energy, the president's daughter Ivanka Trump, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his digital strategist, Dan Scavino.

Others who the White House said will be on the trip include Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; Mike Passey, who oversees the India portfolio on the National Security Council; and Kash Patel, who worked for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and is now the president's counterterrorism adviser.