How to impress Trump: Indian city builds a wall and plans to fill a stadium
When the leaders of China and Japan visited this western Indian city in recent years, civic officials hung a giant piece of fabric along a stretch of road, hiding a slum of about 1,000 families from the official motorcades.
Local children eventually tore down the fabric. So when Ahmedabad prepared to welcome its highest profile foreign visitor yet, the city decided there was only one thing to do.
For President Trump, they built a wall.
“Build that wall” may be a political rallying cry for Trump in the U.S., where he has dreamed of erecting a barrier to keep out migrants from Mexico, but in India officials barely hesitate to conceal, evict or tear down the homes of slum-dwellers when the occasion demands it.
And Ahmedabad, sun-scorched and decidedly unglamorous, has rarely seen a spectacle like what is expected Monday, when Trump arrives to kick off a two-day official visit to India, the first of his presidency.
The city is decked out with colorful paintings on street walls. Roads that Trump’s motorcade will travel on have been repaired or re-laid. U.S. and Indian flags have been put up on either side of the main road, along with larger-than-life cutouts of Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Large billboards with pictures of the two leaders have gone up with messages that read, “Welcome to the land of Mahatma Gandhi,” and “World’s largest democracy meets world’s oldest democracy.”
Trump is expected to spend just three hours in Ahmedabad, but the state government of Gujarat is reportedly spending about $14 million on the visit. More than 10,000 police personnel have also been deployed in the city of 5.5 million.
This is the first time a sitting American president has visited Ahmedabad, an anonymous destination for much of the world but a major industrial city and the source of a large diaspora in the U.S. It is also the home of both Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India’s independence movement, and Modi, who led the state as chief minister before becoming prime minister in 2014.
Trump’s visit follows Modi’s visit in September to the U.S., where the two leaders walked beside each other at a rock concert in Houston in front of 50,000 Indian Americans.
Bharat Pandya, spokesman for Modi’s Bharitya Janata Party, or BJP, said it was “our duty to reciprocate” after the reception Modi received.
“Several big leaders have come to Gujarat before, but there is a special attachment this time around because so many Gujaratis live in America,” Pandya said in an interview. “The entire BJP... is particularly excited to receive Trump.”
Party officials said that after landing in Ahmedabad around midday — late Sunday Pacific time — Trump is expected to proceed to Sabarmati Ashram, Gandhi’s riverside former residence. From there, he will head to Motera Stadium, billed as the world’s largest cricket venue, where organizers say a capacity crowd of 110,000 people will attend a political-style rally.
Trump told audiences in the U.S. that as many as 10 million people would greet him in Ahmedabad, a figure that Indian leaders later said was impossible. As many as 100,000 are expected to line the roads to welcome Trump’s motorcade.
The state government has allotted buses to administrators of eight nearby districts to bring people to the city, with Ahmedabad district alone having been allotted 600 buses, said K.K. Nirala, a senior official.
“Youth from different colleges are specifically asking for passes” to the stadium event, Nirala said. “And several industrialists and cricket stars are also set to attend.”
A meal isn’t on the agenda, which may be just as well — Ahmedabad is an overwhelmingly vegetarian city and the president, after all, is a renowned fan of burgers.
From here Trump and First Lady Melania Trump are due to travel to the northern state of Uttar Pradesh to tour the Taj Mahal, before arriving in the capital New Delhi. Indian news media report that Trump will be greeted near the Taj Mahal by the state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, an extremist Hindu priest who has a history of incendiary remarks against the Muslim minority, and whose security forces have been accused of violence in Muslim neighborhoods.
If Trump is bothered by a photo op with such a divisive figure — at a landmark that for some would recall his bankrupt Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City — he might not show it.
“Trump has famously told law enforcement in the U.S. to be ‘rough’ and ‘not too nice’… and has applied and extended a ‘Muslim ban’ on immigration,” said Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Given all this, unfortunately I doubt the president will care one way or another about the problems Yogi Adityanath is creating.”
A group of activists, writers and students are planning to protest in Ahmedabad against Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies, including a citizenship law that critics say discriminates against Muslims. But the group hasn’t been granted a permit for the gathering and isn’t expected to get anywhere near Trump.
“If Trump condones Modi’s citizenship policies then it is clear that there won’t be any international pressure if a leader wants to subvert democracy in his or her own country,” said Maansi Shah, a teaching associate who is helping to organize the protest.
Modi’s party, like a majority of Indians, likes the president and is expecting an enthusiastic welcome.
“He has taken a strong stand against terrorism,” Pandya said. “If we want to fight terrorism, we must support Trump.”
Ahmedabad officials hope the visit will shine a spotlight on their city — though perhaps not all of it. Nirala, the local official, insisted the new concrete wall built starting a week ago wasn’t intended to hide the slum. But residents said that’s what it does.
“Trump should go back [home] with the belief that only rich people live in Ahmedabad,” said Karsan Bhai, a middle-aged tea seller residing in one of the shanties. “This is Modi’s development.”
Special correspondent Parth M.N. reported from Ahmedabad and Times staff writer Bengali from Singapore.
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