by Chidanand Rajghatta

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump expects a massive welcome by millions of people when he lands in Ahmadabad, Gujarat, on the first leg of his two-day India visit on February 24.

“He (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) said we'll have millions & millions of people. He thinks we'll have 5-7 million people just from the airport to the new (Motera) stadium,” Trump exulted in a brief remarks on the visit in the White House on Tuesday, confirming his India visit and saying he is looking forward to it, while suggesting his rallies in the US would pale in comparison to the one he anticipates in India.

“He is a great gentleman. He is a friend of mine,” the US President added, lending a personal dimension to the visit.

The Motera Stadium, which Modi and Trump are expected to inaugurate together, will be one of the largest sports stadiums in the world with a capacity of 110,000. An additional 15,000 people are expected to be seated in the playing area to watch a curated cultural program before hearing the two leaders, making it one of the largest political rallies, perhaps even an unprecedented spectacle, involving a foreign leader.

Beyond that it is not clear on what basis Trump expects five to seven million people to line the route from the Ahmedabad airport to Motera stadium – a distance of about 12 km or 7.5 miles. Ahmedabad’s population as per the 2011 census was approximately 5.65 million.

The last US President to get a rousing street-level public reception was Dwight Eisenhower in December 1959. He was welcomed at the airport by President Rajendra Prasad, Prime Minister Nehru, vice-president Radhakrishnan and the entire union cabinet before being driven to Rashtrapati Bhavan with people thronging the streets.

The Trump visit though will begin in Ahmedabad on February 24 and culminate in New Delhi the next day. Besides the so-called “Kem Cho Trump” (Howdy Trump) rally at Motera, the US President will also get a tour of Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram with Prime Minister Modi personally conducting him around.

The incongruous spectacle of a wealthy plutocrat who is a byword for hedonism touring the memorial home of a Spartan legend will be one for the ages. In fact, local reports suggest Modi will lead Trump through working on the Mahatma’s famous Charkha (spinning wheel) he used to symbolise self-reliance and personal industry.

Modi himself was circumspect about the kind of welcome Trump would get, merely tweeting. "Extremely delighted that @POTUS @realDonaldTrump and @FLOTUS will visit India on 24th and 25th February. India will accord a memorable welcome to our esteemed guests."

"This visit is a very special one and it will go a long way in further cementing India-USA friendship," he added.

The Trump organisation has extensive business ties with Gujarati entrepreneurs predating its founder becoming the President, and both Trump and his children have been unapologetic about furthering the ties. Anecdotal accounts suggest that the Gujarati diaspora in the US, which is mostly business- and entrepreneur-centric, is more inclined towards the Republican Party, particularly after Trump seized control of the party, mainly on account of his business-friendly outlook.

Although Prime Minister Modi has hosted other foreign dignitaries on his home turf – notably China’s President Xi JinPing, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu – Gujarat as a political canvas is more meaningful for President Trump than for any other leader. He won a toss-up state like Michigan by less than 12,000 ballots, making every vote critical in such tightly contested states.

The Indian diaspora is now an estimated 4 million strong on the US, with Gujaratis alone accounting for more than a million.

In indications that the visit will be high on symbolism rather than substance though, Trump played down prospects of a large, headline-making trade deal during the trip, saying there would be a one if it was the “right deal.” The cryptic remark suggested the two sides were still trying to arrive at an agreement, but not being able to do so before the visit would not derail the visit.

Modi too was taciturn about specific outcomes from the visit, tweeting, “India and USA share a common commitment to democracy and pluralism. Our nations are cooperating extensively on a wide range of issues. Robust friendship between our nations augurs well not only for our citizens but also for the entire world.”