New Delhi: There could never be a good time to have a summit meeting with Donald Trump but this is just about the worst. If Narendra Modi returns empty-handed from his conference with the US President later this month as sensible analysis indicates, that should count as a minor victory considering that embattled Trump is ready to chew the heads of most foreign leaders with the exception of Vladimir Putin. If the matter were not so serious, Modi could have been humorously counselled to take tips from the Russian strongman in the matter of winning the friendship of Donald Trump and influencing him. As things stand though, it is not going to be easy. It looks rather very nearly impossible.

The Modi-Trump engagement is slated to occur slam in the middle of Congressional and Department of Justice investigations of Putin-gate. The firing of the FBI Director, James Comey, has added grave charges of alleged obstruction of justice against the United States President. If Trump had been in his second term like Richard Nixon when he faced the Watergate crisis, one could expect the President to be able to separate the personal from the political and carry on with his executive functions being relatively unimpeded. From the later revelations about the Nixon White House, it was proved that presidential detachment and dispassion from the tightening noose of Watergate were scarcely in abundance. But still the President was equal to keeping the United States poised on the foreign relations front. The principles of extrication from Vietnam were put in place, the opening to China to balance the Soviet Union had also commenced, and the Soviet Union was compelled to abandon its adamant opposition to detente. For a President facing impeachment and historical revulsion, Nixon did not do badly.

In contrast to Nixon, Trump is a novice, a President of less than six months. Nixon was a consummate politician. Trump, before he took residence in the White House, was a real estate magnate. In India, those who deal with property are called property dealers. Like the third rate lawyers who made up the Tiers Etat of Revolutionary France, property dealers enjoy no social distinction and standing in this country. They also have a short lifespan, and violent death seems common in their trade. It is not clear how many of these qualities of Indian brokers Donald Trump shares, but he is most unlike a politician and closer to an Uttam Nagar or Sunlight Colony realtor who lives and breathes deals. Nixon was amazingly knowledgeable about international affairs. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is currently highly concerned about his skin, and how to save it. He thinks he will be saved by delivering on his campaign promise of America First by squeezing billions of dollars of investments and US export orders from befuddled foreign leaders. He has succeeded with that tactic with Saudi Arabia and Japan and he has not spared the NATO powers from the thumbscrews. His likeliest poser to Narendra Modi at their first bilateral meeting would be, paraphrasing a most charismatic predecessor, “Ask not what America can do for you; ask what you can do for the United States.” One of Trump’s press aides has already spoken of the expectations from Modi to assist the US economy.

That is the equivalent of carrying coals to Newcastle.

In Washington, in the meantime, they would be hard-pressed to locate Mandsaur on the map.

From indications in the media, Narendra Modi is likely to focus with Trump on Pakistani terrorism, Chinese perfidy with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and generally, and lastly on the urgency of peacemaking in Afghanistan. He will perhaps hope to win Trump’s friendship and alliance on the terrorism issue, unmindful that it is a double-edged sword. Nikki Haley, who is smarting from India’s rejection of US mediation in Kashmir, could likely advice the President to directly broach this subject with Modi. While Modi can do little except to once again politely reject the offer of mediation, it will nevertheless, to all intents and purposes, bury his visit in embarrassment and ignominy. On Afghanistan, the US President could demand enhanced Indian financial contribution and indeed Indian troops’ deployment, the second of which would be absolutely insane to accept or even countenance. Finally, on China, the Indian Prime Minister would tread on treacherous grounds with the US President. China and the United States engage as Great Powers. For all his periodic threats with respect to North Korea and the South China Sea dispute, Trump is not so opposed to China. Trump likes totalitarian states and strongmen. He has had a surfeit of US constitutional checks and balances and invasive divisions of power which now threaten to undermine his presidency. In his present disposition, he could be a closet admirer of China, and wished he could restore glory to the United States with Chinese-style and BRI-mandated imperialism and colonialism. Modi’s whinging about China could boomerang with Trump.

Some months ago, this writer warned that Modi and Trump were too alike to make friends and bring their countries closer. That dread grows as the hour of their meeting approaches. Modi cannot indefinitely defer a meeting with Trump. US protectionism is hurting the Indian economy, which is already hit by self-inflicted wounds like demonetization, policy mismanagement, social unrest, and a spiralling crisis in the farm sector. Except that a summit with Trump will not save the situation for Narendra Modi at home. The crisis in the economy, growing unemployment, the unending violence in Kashmir, the rising social schisms, and the worsening relations with China and Pakistan will not magically take a pause because Narendra Modi and Donald Trump are meeting. Indeed, Trump has the power, the immaturity and the capricious personality to make it all infinitely perverse for India. After all, he seems of a mind not to stop at anything to save his presidency, inching perilously close to sacking the special counsel for the Putin-gate inquiry, Robert Mueller. If a President does not think twice of playing fast and loose with the democratic US constitution, he can scarcely be relied on as an international partner and ally for good.