NEW DELHI — Mysterious figures in sunglasses have scoped out the Taj Mahal. The hunt is on for rally venues and presidential suites. Officials on both sides of the Indian Ocean are rushing ahead with feverish preparations, including final negotiations for a much-anticipated trade deal.
President Trump is expected to swoop into India for a full-fledged state visit in late February, according to Indian officials. Mr. Trump, apparently eager to get out of the Washington caldron and as far away from the impeachment debate as possible, plans to spend about two days in India, a country where the United States is eager for more business and looking to find a counterweight to the rise of China.
His counterpart in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has his own deepening political troubles to duck, and this visit could be seen as an endorsement of Mr. Modi’s recent policies that have deeply divided India and set off deadly nationwide protests. In recent weeks, Indians from all walks of life have railed against Mr. Modi’s government for backing a new citizenship law that is widely seen as discriminatory toward India’s Muslim minority and a blow to India’s roots as a secular democracy.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi have shared a stage before, at an event in Texas called “Howdy, Modi.” Tens of thousands of Indian-Americans cheered on two populist leaders who have further polarized their own societies.
The Indian news media has kicked into high gear. Its stories explore where Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi might share the stage this time, with a giant cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, in Mr. Modi’s home state of Gujarat, as one possibility. Mr. Trump is expected to stay at the same fancy hotel near the American Embassy in New Delhi, the capital, that Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama used.
According to accounts in the Indian news media, this trip originated during a phone call in early January, when Mr. Modi and Mr. Trump exchanged New Year’s best wishes and then spoke of getting together soon.
“Howdy Trump: US President to visit India,’’ read one headline on Tuesday.
A visit from an American president right now could help Mr. Modi, who for the first time since he came into office nearly six years ago faces widespread street protests against him. In August, his government revoked the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, a conflict-ridden territory that had been India’s only Muslim-majority state. To contain the disquiet, the government arrested thousands of Kashmiris without charges and shut down internet and phone service across Kashmir, throwing the area, home to as many as eight million people, into a communications black hole. (Some restrictions were just lifted.)
Then in December, Mr. Modi’s government made an even more contentious decision. It passed a new law that makes it easier for migrants from all major faiths except Islam to gain Indian citizenship. Deadly demonstrations erupted, fueled by deep concerns that Mr. Modi, whose political party espouses a Hindu-centric worldview, was trying to dismantle India’s long tradition of tolerance and make India a Hindu-first nation.
These moves have put Mr. Modi on the defensive, especially abroad. Some American officials have called for sanctions, and the European Union is considering half a dozen critical resolutions in its Parliament.
American officials have remained tight-lipped about Mr. Trump’s India plans, citing security concerns. Several Indian news sites ran pictures this month showing a large American delegation, with many team members wearing sunglasses, visiting the Taj Mahal in an apparent security review.
The tentative plans include events around New Delhi and excursions. Analysts have said that one reason a Modi-Trump event might be held in Gujarat is that many Indian-Americans trace their heritage back to Gujarat, a coastal state with a history of trading. Visiting there could lift Mr. Trump’s political fortunes among Indian-Americans who tend to be affluent and politically active.
Gujarat is also where Mr. Modi is still wildly popular, despite the recent knocks he has taken for the citizenship law. Indian officials are eager to stage an event at a new 110,000-seat cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, which Mr. Modi’s side has vowed to fill with fans.
Behind the pageantry, Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi will have to navigate some tricky geopolitics. For years, American officials have been trying to woo India into a closer strategic partnership to contain China, though India has remained lukewarm. American and Indian officials are also eager to ink a trade deal.
India’s per capita gross domestic product is about $2,000, compared to about $63,000 for the United States, according to World Bank data. But because of its scale — 1.3 billion people — India is one of the world’s largest economies. The Trump administration is obsessed with the overall American trade deficit and wants India to buy more American goods.
Many analysts and business leaders believe Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi will sign a limited trade deal — the first significant rapprochement after more than a year of escalating tariffs and countertariffs. India has long been one of the world’s most protectionist countries, imposing high tariffs and a maze of regulations that hamper foreign companies.
India has tentatively agreed to end price caps on imported medical devices like heart stents and artificial knees, which had been a key sticking point in the talks, said business leaders briefed on the discussions.
The Modi government, for its part, is insisting that the Trump administration restore a preferential trade status for India that lowers tariffs on goods like textiles.
Before granting any concessions on that front, the United States wants India to promise to purchase billions of dollars of American turkeys, blueberries, apples, pecans and other agricultural products to help reduce a $25 billion trade deficit with India.
The two leaders may also announce another major Indian purchase of American weapons.
For Mr. Trump, who has been facing an impeachment trial and is beginning his re-election campaign, even a modest deal with India would allow him to tell voters that his tough talk on trade is working. He has loudly complained about India’s high tariffs, particularly on Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
For Mr. Modi, who is battling an economic slowdown, an agreement would ease perceptions that his nationalist government is hostile to foreign companies. It could also help inject a little momentum into India’s economy at a time when Mr. Modi is eager to talk about anything other than the citizenship law.
Jeffrey Gettleman reported from New Delhi and Vindu Goel from Mumbai, India. Suhasini Raj contributed reporting from New Delhi.