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(First published on February 22, 2020)

President Donald Trump’s upcoming India visit is an unparalleled feat of remarkable optics and symbolism. He lands in the country on February 24. From Sardar Vallabhbhai Airport in Ahmedabad on their 22km road trip to the Motera Stadium, he will have a brief stopover at the Sabarmati Ashram (one of the many residences of Mohandas Gandhi) where Narendra Modi and Trump will pay tribute to India’s founding father who was killed by an RSS fanatic, Nathuram Godse, for the alleged crime of “emasculating Hindus, turning them effeminate” and protesting in support of Pakistan and communal unity. Modi’s own party member and terror-accused Pragya Thakur publicly called Godse a patriot. At Sabarmati Ashram, a sketch of Gandhi, a book on his life and a spinning wheel will be presented to the visiting US President. Then they will leave for the stadium where a star-studded event called “Namaste Trump” will welcome him.

The journey is also significant because recently, media reports emerged stating that the Gujarat government, as part of its beautification drive ahead of the Trump visit, had built a four-foot-high wall to hide Ahmedabad’s slums. I know your mind will immediately single out the word ‘wall’. The irony is not lost here. Trump won the 2016 election on the promise of building a wall on the Mexican border after all. But the operative part here is not the wall but the slum. India is very touchy about its poverty and often complains about foreign tourists taking too many pictures of slums. Never mind movies like Slumdog Millionaire, because they win more awards for India — something the country is obsessed with.

The slums are important because they negate the myth of Modi’s Gujarat model. Before the 2014 elections, we were told that Modi was to replicate this model of great governance and poverty alleviation in Gujarat across India. Well, building walls around slums is one way of alleviating poverty… or the poor. But slums in Ahmedabad are also significant because that is where the city keeps its Muslim population displaced by the Modi-supervised 2002 violence that left over 2,000 Muslims dead. That was 2002. This is 2020. Like religious extremism elsewhere, the communal violence in India often masks material motivations. The 2002 violence, for instance, forced many affluent Muslims to flee for their lives leaving behind their wealth and property to be grabbed by the majority community. The displaced were to settle on the outer edge of Ahmedabad. In 2013-14 in the run-up to the general elections which brought Modi to power at the centre, reports emerged about what these slum dwellers had to endure. The grounds adjacent to these slums were used as a dumping ground for the toxic industrial waste. As per the reports, Muslim and poor kids had developed deformities because of the toxicity. But never mind you. Gujarat was shining and the industrial waste belonged next to the “human waste”. Godse would be pleased. Toxic majoritarian masculinity regained. Modi then was the exact opposite of what Gandhi represented to Godse. The effeminate and the masculine are important because a controversial booklet distributed at a Congress retreat claimed that Godse had a homosexual relationship with Savarkar, the founder of Hindutva ideology.

From Ahmedabad, the US President will leave for Agra, accompanied by his beautiful wife who is also a former supermodel, where the universal symbol of love built by a Muslim king as a posthumous tribute to his beloved wife, Taj Mahal, stands tall. Agra is in UP, India’s most populous state. The state is now ruled by the street rat turned Hindu monk whose rise to prominence is attributed to heading a Hindu gang and public statements calling for the abduction of 100 Muslim girls if one Hindu girl marries a Muslim man. One of his allies even stated in his presence that it was correct to rape dead Muslim women. This bloke, Ajay Bisht, who calls himself Yogi Adityanath, also believes that Mother Theresa was part of a conspiracy to convert India to Christianity. It will be really intriguing to see if he joins Trump for a 45-minute stay at the Taj Mahal. Bisht is from Modi’s party, which for a long time has vowed to raze the Taj Mahal to the ground for the singular crime of being built by a Muslim.

The US President and the First Lady’s engagements the next day are all in Delhi, a city whose election Modi’s party recently lost for the third term. The infrastructure that will be showed off to the First Family is also an accomplishment of the Aam Aadmi Party government of Delhi. Here, too, a tribute will be paid to India’s founder. Delhi was recently in the news because of the violence perpetrated by Modi’s allied young hooligans and Delhi Police, which is under Modi’s Interior minister Amit Shah, against the students of JNU and Jamia Millia. Although there is a photo-op in the schedule and an interaction with the business leaders at the US Embassy, absent from the list is a joint interaction with the media. Word has it that the Indian officials were worried that if any journalist asked Trump about Kashmir, he could repeat his offer to mediate, which the Modi administration would construe as significant loss of face. Meanwhile, the shrieks of children abducted and tortured by the Indian security apparatus in another beautiful place converted into a slum — Kashmir will be kept away from the visiting delegation’s ears by an invisible wall of impunity.

Given that the itinerary and the engagements are fixed with mutual consent, which means that the visitors have a say in the matter, you can notice that our American friends have gone out of the way to choose secular symbols of India for the visit. However, you can also see how this entire exercise is undermined by the changed character of the host nation. Another interesting thing that stands out is that the visit ends on February 25 and not a day later. It is clear that the Modi administration wanted Trump in town on the first anniversary of the Balakot attack, but somewhere common decency prevailed and despite this close brush, that date was omitted from the schedule.

President Trump has his reasons to visit India and Modi has his reasons to host him. But the US President visits India at a time when his country’s economy is at one of its highest while India, under Modi, is witnessing one of its worst economic performances in recent years. I know both leaders have been compared in the past. But this fact speaks volumes about their different leadership style.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 22nd, 2020.

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