Via Financial Times

Donald Trump travels to India next week, his first presidential visit to a country Washington is trying to cultivate as a strategic counterweight to an increasingly assertive China.

The bonhomie between Mr Trump and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is strong: the leaders jointly appeared at a political rally of 50,000 jubilant Indian-Americans at a stadium in Texas in September. Visibly impressed by Mr Modi’s crowd-pulling power, Mr Trump likened the Indian leader to Elvis Presley. 

But India’s growing protectionism, and its $5.5bn purchase of a Russian missile shield system, has sparked friction with Washington. New Delhi now hopes that staging a huge welcome rally for Mr Trump will help deflect US frustration on substantive policy differences. 

“We’re not treated very well by India, but I happen to like prime minister Modi a lot. And he told me we’ll have 7m people between the airport and the event,” Mr Trump told reporters this week. 

Here are five things to watch during Mr Trump’s two-day India trip:

Trade tensions

Last year, Washington stripped India of special trade privileges that had given $5.6bn of Indian exports duty free access to the US market. The move followed a series of Indian tariff increases and increasingly protectionist economic policies that hurt US business interests. 

Since then, Washington and New Delhi have tried to hammer out a “mini-trade deal” to tackle some of the biggest irritants, including India’s price caps on coronary stents and other medical devices and its restrictions on US dairy imports, in exchange for restoring India’s duty-free US market access. But even these modest talks appear to have hit a wall. 

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Mr Trump was ambiguous on the prospects for the much-vaunted “mini-deal” to be completed during his visit, pointing instead to a “very big trade deal” with India that he said may not be completed until after the US election. 

Following US moves this week to tighten sanctions on companies involved in helping Venezuela get its oil to market, targeting the trading arm of Russia’s Rosneft, the Modi government may also come under pressure during Mr Trump’s visit to rein in its purchase of Venezuelan oil.

Tech talk

New Delhi’s plan to require foreign businesses to store all their Indian users’ personal data inside the country has caused chagrin in the US business community. From the tech industry to financial services to pharmaceuticals, companies have argued that such a rule would impose huge extra costs on doing business in India. 

India, meanwhile, is unhappy at Mr Trump’s clampdown on H-1B visas, which it said has disproportionately hit Indian IT services companies trying to bring workers to the US. Such issues could well get an airing, although resolution on any is unlikely. 

Defence deals

Although India defied US pressure to order Russia’s S-400 missile shield, the US still has ambitious plans to sell new military hardware to New Delhi, which has bought some $17bn of US weaponry over the past decade and a half. This month, Mr Trump’s administration approved the $1.9bn sale of a US integrated air defence weapons system that could be used for a missile shield to protect Delhi. India may also formally announce its $2.6bn purchase of a batch of Lockheed Martin’s anti-submarine Seahawk naval helicopters, a sale for which US approval was granted last year. 

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Human rights

While many in Washington are concerned at India’s protracted detention of high-profile democratic political leaders in the troubled Kashmir region, Mr Trump is unlikely to raise uncomfortable human rights questions. But the president, who fancies his dealmaking skills, has on several occasions offered to mediate between India and its neighbour Pakistan over their decades-old dispute over the Kashmir dispute. Any spur-of-the-moment reiteration of such an offer on Indian soil will be desperately awkward, given New Delhi’s longstanding insistence that Kashmir is purely a bilateral issue. 

Workers are rushing to complete the Motera 110,000-seat cricket stadium in Ahmedabad before Mr Trump's arrival
Workers are rushing to complete the Motera 110,000-seat cricket stadium in Ahmedabad before Mr Trump’s arrival © Amit Dave/Reuters

Crowd size

Mr Trump appears most excited about the planned “Namaste Trump” rally being held on Monday at a 110,000-seat cricket stadium that Indian workers are now rushing to complete in Mr Modi’s political hometown, Ahmedabad. 

Mr Trump says that Mr Modi promised that 7m people would turn out along the roads between the airport and the stadium to welcome him — a grand reception the US president hopes will boost his image among Indian-American voters. 

Analysts say such great expectations may stem from a translation error, given that Ahmedabad’s total population is only 5.5m. But regardless of precise crowd count, New Delhi intends to gift Mr Trump a spectacle to remember, which it hopes will generate goodwill in the White House and help a fraught relationship weather the challenges to come.