Indira Gandhi in Washington, D.C. in 1966.
Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress

Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984, marked the passing of the generation that brought India to independence. Mrs. Gandhi was nourished, almost from birth, on the Congress Party’s struggle against the British, and was particularly influenced by her party’s close links with British socialism in the 1930s. She was deeply suspicious of the business class, even though it supported her with millions of rupees. She was convinced that only if the nation’s industry, agriculture and services were closely guided by the state would equity and justice be assured. Wary of "imperialist" pressures on India—political, educational and economic—she never relinquished her belief that "foreign hands" sought to undermine not only Indian stability and independence but her personal political power as well. Although the United States seemed most often to be the target of her concern, the Soviets, British, Chinese, French and most of her South Asian neighbors were also frequently suspect.

Mrs. Gandhi shared the concern of her father’s generation that India’s unity and integrity were fragile and under continuing threat. The partition into two states, India and Pakistan, was the first great trauma for the independence politicians. Then, in the 1950s, came the integration of hundreds of small princedoms of the old British Raj and the struggle to prevent India from collapsing into a babel of independent linguistic and ethnic states. In the 1960s and 1970s, Mrs. Gandhi fought against political rivals at the national level, and sought to weaken and destroy politicians with strong regional bases who threatened to shift the political balance of power from New Delhi to the state levels; such a shift, she believed, would inevitably weaken the unity and authority of the central government.

Mrs. Gandhi was proud of India’s technological progress but remained close to the traditions and customs of the countryside. Unlike her father, who openly disdained traditional religion, she regularly visited and worshipped at temples and shrines, and privately sought the counsel of astrologers. Her empathy was strong for the concerns of ordinary villagers, even though she herself never lived in rural India. Only once did she lose her grip on the pulse of her country, when a mass compulsory sterilization campaign got out of hand in 1975-76, arousing popular fears and anger, and resulting in her overwhelming defeat at the polls in 1977.

The confusion, division and incompetence of Mrs. Gandhi’s political opponents (despite their strength in some regions), her determination to ensure that one of her sons would succeed her, her drive for vindication, and her sheer political grit and shrewdness, all led Indira Gandhi back to power in 1980. But her last four years were difficult, marked by growing internal political unrest, increasing public cynicism about politics and politicians, and the dangerous religious violence which ultimately took her life.

II

Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother as prime minister only hours after her death, was three years old when India became independent in 1947. For most of his life, politics and foreign policy seem to have held no interest for him at all. His view of the broader world is hard to trace, but his interests and priorities seem quite different from those of his predecessors. He expressed great suspicion of outside interference in India during his 1984 election campaign, but this seemed more tactical than (as with his mother) a residue of a lifetime of political conspiracy and anti-imperialist liturgy. He appears committed, in a personal sense, to the modern world and to reform and change in a way his mother was not. Religion, superstition and the life of the peasant have no place in his experience or interest.

He may wear a shawl and dress in plain white Indian pajamas in public, but in private he is a man of jeans and polo shirts. His career was aviation; his closest friends, young businessmen; his most persistent theme in speaking to national or grass-roots audiences is the importance of technology and modernization. Appalled at the garbled, disjointed records of the Congress Party, he put them on computers. He influenced his mother’s decision to begin to liberalize the internal economy three years ago and to open up Indian economic development increasingly to the use of electronic communications and computer technology.

In his first two rather reluctant years as an apprentice politician after the death of his younger brother Sanjay—whom Mrs. Gandhi had originally seen as her political heir and for whom politics was life itself—Rajiv shied away from the older generation of Congress Party political figures and from the caste and religious politics that Mrs. Gandhi understood so well. He left visitors with a general impression of diffidence and lack of self-confidence. But, thrown suddenly onto center stage by the death of his mother, he instinctively rose to dignity, tranquility, firmness and a willingness to exercise power. These are the characteristics Indians want above all from their leaders; indeed, they are the characteristics that Indians associate with the gods. The underlying strength of the republic and its democratic constitutional system once again enabled India to make a smooth, essentially peaceful transition to a new national leader. The character of that new leader reinforced the support of the Indian people for the system.

In his first months as prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi made not a single false step. Indian voters rewarded this performance with an overwhelming vote of confidence in the national elections in December 1984, and with almost the same enthusiasm in the more complex state-wide elections in March. Like fairy dust, charisma has graced Rajiv’s head, where no one had guessed it would settle.

In selecting Congress Party candidates for the December elections, Rajiv boldly tried to sweep away great numbers of venal, sycophantic and traditional politicians, pulling back only when it was clear that a frontal assault would tear his party apart. But his enormous victory at the national polls—he won 80 percent of the seats contested, giving the Congress Party its first clear popular majority since Indian independence—gave him great bargaining power to strike more effectively at these targets, and he did so before the subsequent state elections by refusing party endorsements to 40 percent of the Congress members seeking reelection to state legislatures. He has thus begun to generate new life in the Congress Party at lower levels, a vital step for future vigor in Indian politics.

To be sure, his post-election national cabinet is not brilliant; it is not markedly different in character from his mother’s last cabinet. But he chose a number of new junior ministers of state, and pointedly told all his ministers that they would be judged promptly and finally by their performances. For the first time, there were junior ministers in their thirties, and even if the assortment of caste, religious and regional politicians which India’s diversity and social complexity demands is still there, the older ministers can see all too clearly that new and younger substitutes are ready and in training to fill their shoes should they falter.

Rajiv feels most comfortable with his own generation and with individuals whose backgrounds are similar to his own. His closest advisers and the key managers of his election campaign were his classmates at the elite Nehru Dun boarding school for boys or friends from his years as a pilot for Indian Airlines. But he has also promoted more traditional politicians in his general age bracket, such as V.P. Singh, an attractive and shrewd Congress Party member of parliament in his mid-forties. Singh, Rajiv’s finance minister, held several cabinet positions in Mrs. Gandhi’s post-1980 cabinets and organized the Congress victory at the recent elections in the vital north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which has 119 million people and 84 parliamentary seats. He has the grass-roots links which Rajiv Gandhi still lacks, despite the prime minister’s demonstrated appeal to the Indian voters, and yet is fully committed to honest, efficient and modern government. Singh is a man to watch for the future.

Simplifying the operations of government, speeding up the decision-making process and eliminating dead wood are Rajiv’s central governing priorities. He has tried to shake up the 16 million bureaucrats of the country, condemning sloth and laziness, and demanding hard work. The objectives are impeccable, but Rajiv will find—and probably already knows—that their realization will be enormously difficult.

III

The major issues facing the new government are overwhelmingly internal, as would be the case for any Indian government. But India’s relations with its neighbors—particularly Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh—cut deeply across Indian domestic political sensitivities about national unity, and affect a wide range of political, military and economic options for New Delhi. Despite efforts to lead the nonaligned movement and excursions into global politics (more frequent in the 1950s and 1960s than later), events in South Asia have always been at the heart of India’s foreign policy. These are the issues that affect most powerfully the political forces within India itself.

The collapse of law and order in the Punjab in 1984 clearly illustrates the point. Virtually all of India’s attention and energy was focused for most of the year on the tensions between Sikhs and Hindus in the northwest Indian state. The Punjab, bordering on Pakistan and lying only 60 miles from New Delhi itself, is India’s richest state, the breadbasket of the country and a center of modern industry and military facilities. Indian national security and the safety of the capital depend on the stability and security of the Punjab. No Indian government could tolerate a breakaway movement there.

It is true that despite occasional bursts of rhetoric, even during the worst of the violence between radical Sikhs and government authority in 1984, few Indian Sikhs sought an independent state. But another assassination or further acts of terrorism could arouse a new wave of violence by Hindus against Sikhs of the Punjab and elsewhere, with dangerous consequences for Indian stability, religious peace, and confidence in the army and civil service, where Sikhs hold many senior positions.

Indian strategic planners have always feared that Pakistan might take advantage of domestic Indian religious or social strife to weaken Indian unity and encourage dissidence. Some Indians strongly believed this was happening in 1984, but evidence for official Pakistani support of Sikh dissidents is fragile. In his December election speeches Rajiv Gandhi repeatedly struck the theme that India would exert every power at its disposal to ensure stability in the Punjab, vaguely but ominously warning against any outside involvement.

Pakistan’s leaders consistently and indignantly denied any involvement with the Sikhs; since Mrs. Gandhi’s death they have expressed strong and repeated interest in improving relations with New Delhi and with its new prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi responded warmly, but nearly 40 years of bad blood must be overcome, and hardly a month goes by in which there is not some expression of suspicion and fear by India or Pakistan about activities directed by one at the other: troop movements, alleged border incursions, negotiations for new arms, inflammatory radio or press broadsides. These suspicions can gradually be eased by efforts on both sides, but will swiftly revive if there is new internal unrest in either Indian or Pakistani border areas.

Thus, regardless of Pakistani professions of friendship and denials of interest in destabilizing India, Indian leaders cannot rest easy until political stability is fully restored in the Punjab. Reconciliation with the Sikhs and an easing of tensions in the Punjab are the most urgent internal tasks facing Rajiv Gandhi and, at the same time, key elements for peace in the subcontinent.The new prime minister is not without assets in facing this challenge. It was Mrs. Gandhi, not Rajiv, whom most Sikhs held responsible for the Indian army’s seizure last summer of the Golden Temple, the sacred center of the Sikh religion. It was she, not he, who imprisoned or banned from political activity most of the leaders of the Sikh community. Emotions have cooled since then and Rajiv handled well the rioting in New Delhi after Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination. Hindus and Sikhs alike were stunned by the looting and vengeance killings that followed the assassination, and Rajiv’s calls for calm, unity and justice were welcomed by opinion leaders on all sides. Most of the issues under dispute are not that intractable, leaving aside the extreme claims of a handful of Sikhs committed to separation or radical reforms to distinguish a Sikh Punjab from the rest of India.

Rajiv, therefore, can start with a relatively clean slate, and moderates among the Sikhs are likely to be eager to try to work with him in the coming year. His release of key Sikh leaders in March 1985 was an important first step. Next would be a judicial inquiry into the rioting in New Delhi and the killings of Sikhs on Indian railways in the same period, but the prime minister has hesitated on such a step, possibly for fear of uncovering culpability among both police and Congress Party officials.

The Punjab, of course, is not the only domestic Indian area affected by relations with Pakistan. The shifting of millions of people during partition, as well as three Indo-Pakistani wars and the fact that India has the fourth largest Muslim population in the world, have produced intense sensitivity to any Pakistani developments. India’s Muslims have shown themselves over the years to be genuinely Indian in their national loyalties, but they are also attentive to their Islamic neighbors. Many are deeply religious. Hindu-Muslim tensions have never been totally eliminated, and no year passes in which serious violence with religious overtones does not occur somewhere in the country. In 1984, hundreds died in such incidents in Bombay and Hyderabad. Indian government sensitivity to Pakistani actions—external or internal—that Indians believe might feed such violence is high and, while rarely the subject of direct diplomatic exchanges, remains just under the surface for politicians and officials of both countries.

IV

India’s current problems with Sri Lanka stem from similar cultural, racial, economic and religious causes of long standing. The largest Sri Lankan minority, Tamils who emigrated from southern India to Ceylon as tea and rubber plantation workers in the nineteenth century, is Hindu; Sri Lanka’s ruling Sinhalese are primarily Buddhists, with significant Christian and Muslim minorities. Hostility to the Tamils is strong among both the Sinhalese poor and middle class.

In Indian tradition, Sri Lanka was a land of demons and of the ogre king, Ravanna, who kidnapped and raped the bride of India’s greatest hero, Rama. Even today, Ravanna is burned symbolically as the personification of evil by millions of Indians in India’s most important annual religious festival. At the same time, he is portrayed as a national hero in Sri Lanka, and Sri Lankan folk tales abound with memories of the defeat of past Tamil invaders.

Indian-Sri Lankan diplomatic negotiations over the Tamil minority problem go back to the 1950s, but relations were generally amicable and cooperative until Tamil-Sinhalese tensions erupted into brutal violence two years ago. Moderate voices—Tamil and Sinhalese—were muted, and half a dozen Tamil "liberation" groups proliferated in Sri Lanka, dedicated to independence or total autonomy for Sri Lankan Tamils. The violence and political activity of these Sri Lankan Tamil groups aroused strong sympathy among the 50 million inhabitants of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, including, inevitably, many of the state’s political leaders. New Delhi would probably like to halt the training of Sri Lankan Tamil guerrillas in "secret" camps in southern India, but it has felt compelled to deny even the existence of these camps, despite widespread and detailed reporting on their activities in the Indian press.

Initially, Rajiv Gandhi had little room for diplomatic or political maneuver. Now that the state elections have been concluded, he may be willing to risk restraints on the Tamil "freedom fighters"; in any event, he has firmly rejected Sri Lankan Tamil appeals for Indian troops to come to the aid of their brothers in the south. India has repeatedly offered its good offices in resolving tensions and avoiding any escalation between India and Sri Lanka. Mediation efforts came close to success in the first half of 1984, but ultimately foundered on resistance by some influential Sinhalese nationalists to major concessions for local Tamil autonomy and participation in a proposed national conference of reconciliation.

Prospects for easing tensions or averting a new outbreak of violence in Sri Lanka are not promising, and would be worsened should Sri Lankan Tamils formally declare independence for their northeastern region of the island. Should that occur, a conflict similar to the decade-long tragedy of Cyprus could be replayed in the midst of the Indian Ocean. Internal Indian political tension would be heightened, and Rajiv Gandhi’s current rejection of intervention would be gravely tested.

Bangladesh is the third major intersection of India’s domestic and foreign policy concerns. Indian interests focus on the millions of illegal Bangladesh migrants who have streamed into the northeast state of Assam over the last decade and more. This has aroused growing resentment over land, jobs and political power, as many of the migrants sought to vote in Indian elections and Assamese fought back to prevent being overwhelmed at the polls. Large-scale violence between Assamese and Bengalis—mostly from Bangladesh but some from India’s own state of West Bengal—began to erupt four years ago. Assam is India’s primary source for onshore oil, and violence halted production at one point. India has begun building hundreds of miles of high fences to keep out Bangladesh border-crossers, a move bitterly criticized by the Bangladesh government in terms reminiscent of similar U.S.-Mexican exchanges. Political life in Assam has been disrupted to the point where, as in the Punjab, neither the 1984 national elections nor the local elections of 1985 could be held.

The aura of good will between India and Bangladesh, dating from India’s role of "godmother" to Bangladesh independence from Pakistan in 1971, has long since faded. Not only the border migration question looms as an irritant; there are also intense disagreements over the allocation of river waters flowing through India’s northeastern states into Bangladesh, conflicting claims to potential offshore oil in the Bay of Bengal, and smuggling of rice and jute between the two countries. Indian weariness over persistent internal Bangladesh political instability is growing. The problems intensely affect political and economic debate in the poorest and most volatile of India’s states, West Bengal, Assam and Bihar.

The policies Rajiv Gandhi has adopted on these regional foreign policy problems do not yet differ significantly from those of his mother. This is not surprising, since his mother’s foreign policy advisers still remain in place. More important, India’s policies toward its neighbors are so closely related to difficult domestic issues that options for sudden or fundamental changes are almost nonexistent. But nuances in style on Rajiv’s part may yet appear—perhaps a greater willingness to avoid confrontation, to deal with problems quietly and with at least the appearance of understanding, and greater seriousness about strengthening the fabric of the nascent South Asian Regional Cooperation grouping established four years ago by all the states in the area. Formed without a secretariat, primarily as a forum for discussing issues rather than implementing programs, SARC has accomplished little so far. But if Rajiv is serious about a new Indian opening to his neighbors, the SARC summit planned for the fall will offer him the opportunity.

The key to better relations in the region is greater trust of India by the smaller countries, a trust Mrs. Gandhi did not engender. Like the "Widow at Windsor," of whom Kipling warned one should "walk wide," Mrs. Gandhi’s forceful and, at times, abrasive assertion of a preeminent position on the subcontinent antagonized and alarmed bordering states. Rajiv may venture a smoother, softer stance. Even if much of the substance of Indian policy does not change, a shift in style would be welcomed by all the countries of the region.

V

Relations with the major powers have been heavily influenced by their respective policies toward India’s regional interests. Indians have seen the Soviets as friends, the United States and China, more often than not, as adversaries, and Japan, France and Britain primarily only as trading partners.

Since independence, India’s prime ministers have nourished relations with the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. has supported India on the Kashmir issue and in every other Indian conflict with other states. Since the mid-1960s, the Soviets have been India’s primary source of military equipment and have alternated with the United States as India’s primary trading partner. India has purchased military equipment—helicopters, ships, tanks, artillery and aircraft—from the French, British and others, but most imported Indian military hardware comes from the Soviet Union. Thus, for a sample four-year period (1978-82), of the $3.6 billion in India’s foreign military purchases, $2.8 billion (77 percent) came from the U.S.S.R.

In a rare concession, the Soviets agreed many years ago to allow the Indians to manufacture analogues of almost all the equipment they purchase. This has enabled India to become both self-sufficient in basic arms and a potential exporter. India now places this condition on any military equipment it negotiates to buy; both France and Britain have reluctantly agreed.

In the last three years, India has taken some steps to diversify its sources of modern weaponry. Soviet prices, however, remain lower than those of any other suppliers, and can be paid in rupee-denominated exported goods rather than in scarce foreign exchange. This was enormously helpful when India was able to export to the U.S.S.R. low-quality goods for which international buyers were scarce. But now India wants fewer nonmilitary modern high-technology products from Moscow, and as its own exports become more sophisticated, the appeal of the Soviet market is declining. Indians have begun to worry about large ruble trade balances which are useful only for arms purchases.

After long estrangement on the matter, India and the United States have begun discussions about military sales in recent years. Each round has failed because of various Indian conditions: New Delhi has sought guarantees that supply will not be interrupted by U.S. political decisions; assured delivery of large quantities of spare parts; promises of technology transfer and indigenous production in India; relaxation of U.S. export controls; and other arrangements that the United States found objectionable. A recent sale of sophisticated American electronic equipment for tanks may be a harbinger of things to come. It is very unlikely, however, that the United States or any other Western country will supplant the Soviets as India’s primary source of modern supply in the military field.

India has been sensitive to charges that this arms relationship produces political dependence on the Soviet Union. The Indians do permit Soviet ships to refit and refuel at Indian ports, but they note that the same benefits go to British and French ships. The Soviets sought to use Indian airfields for Indian Ocean reconnaissance flights in the early 1970s, but this was denied. And Indians insist that the Russians have no special access to Indian defense or production facilities once initial training and production technology transfer has been accomplished. There are no regular Soviet training or advisory teams with Indian military forces, other than when new equipment is phased in, and Indian officers are fiercely independent of any foreign military strategic or tactical advice.

Moreover, with only occasional exceptions, India’s positions on most foreign policy issues, as measured by rhetoric and voting in the United Nations, have not differed significantly from those of Indonesia, China, or even Pakistan. (It is the occasional exceptions, including votes on Afghanistan, Kampuchea and the Korean Air Lines incident, which most irritate Washington.)

The Indians are particularly sensitive to Soviet activities in India’s domestic life because of the sizable communist parties in the country. Indians are well aware of continuing Soviet disinformation tactics designed to implicate the United States in supporting Sikh nationalists, opposing India’s leaders, and even being involved in Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, as well as encouraging Sri Lanka and generally interfering in India’s internal affairs. Few senior Indian officials have believed such stories over the years, but they have had a cumulative political impact on many ordinary Indian newspaper readers.

India has felt free, or at least inclined, to criticize American foreign policy more than Soviet. Partly this continues a persistent and often sincerely voiced refrain from Indian intellectuals, since Nehru’s days, that Indians expect more from a democratic than a totalitarian power. During the 1950s and 1960s, moreover, the Soviets were the main international proponents of anticolonialism, an issue to which Indians were instinctively drawn—and on which they often found themselves at odds with the United States, as they admit, whether fairly or not.

Most important, however, is the Indian perception that American policy has favored India’s adversaries—with the sole exception of the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962. Indian suspicion of China and of Pakistan—and of U.S. links to both countries, and those between the two—and unease over American naval might in the Indian Ocean have led Indians, for the last two decades in particular, to look to the Soviets for tacit balancing support against the United States and those states with which the United States seemed to have favored relationships.

The Indians are themselves uneasy about Soviet actions in Afghanistan since 1979. While Indian rhetoric has been constrained in public, Indians have privately made clear to Moscow their strong distaste for the presence of Soviet troops on the fringe of the subcontinent. Mrs. Gandhi bluntly and publicly told her Soviet hosts during a visit to Moscow in 1982 that Soviet troops had to leave Afghanistan. But the issue is complicated for New Delhi policymakers; they are uneasy that the primary guerrilla resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan comes from fundamentalist Muslim groups, and they are even more uneasy that Pakistan is justifying a buildup in its military forces by emphasizing the Soviet threat on its border.

India is faced with a strategic dilemma: it does not want Soviet forces in the region, nor does it want the United States to send forces or military aid to Pakistan to resist Soviet pressures. While it is unable to reach an agreement with Pakistan that would enable both countries to present a joint front to all outside powers, India is unlikely to play a major role in persuading the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan.

VI

Relations between India and China have eased over the last five years. Rajiv Gandhi was a young man of 15 when the two Asian powers went to war in 1962, and it would not be surprising if he were willing to look toward the settlement of minor territorial disputes on the Sino-Indian border that Mrs. Gandhi still had difficulty contemplating. At issue, after all, are nothing more than impenetrable gorges, unclimbable peaks and four-mile-high Himalayan tundra where nothing grows and breathing is painful. India’s national honor as the party defeated in the war has left it reluctant to relinquish territory without compensation. Negotiations are likely to continue to be protracted, but are not critical for either state.

India and China differ strongly on other issues, including Vietnam and Kampuchea. Indira Gandhi harbored strong feelings about Vietnam, dating back to Hanoi’s struggle for independence from France and to her father’s—and her own—admiration for Ho Chi Minh. Since the early 1960s, India has also seen a strategic interest in encouraging an Indochinese "buffer" between China and eastern India, barely 500 miles away across Thailand and Burma. The Indians held no brief for Vietnam’s occupation of Kampuchea, but when balanced against Pol Pot’s rule, and strong Chinese backing for the Khmer Rouge, India has been content to back the Heng Samrin regime in Kampuchea until Pol Pot can be eliminated and Chinese influence in the area reduced.

Indonesia is the only country of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to have sought out good relations with India, primarily because Indonesia shared India’s concern that China might be an active expansionist threat in the Indian Ocean region. The attitudes of other ASEAN countries toward India range from indifference to active dislike. But if Indian economic initiatives show promise of bringing trade and technical benefits to the countries of the region, and if Indo-U.S. relations improve, ASEAN self-interest is likely to lead these states to take another look at India and its new prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi’s decisions on how to deal with ASEAN sensitivities over Vietnam and Kampuchea will depend primarily on how much room he decides he has in dealing with the Soviets. It would be surprising, however, if he wished to commit himself deeply on behalf of the Vietnamese; the "buffer" argument has long seemed somewhat limp, and Vietnam would seem to hold little appeal for someone dedicated to modernizing India. Rajiv’s interest in mutual trade and technology cooperation within the region could be a new element. Japan, as usual ahead of most others, has been wooing India precisely in this way for the past three years. This may thus be an ideal time for moderate Asians—ASEAN and the Republic of Korea—to express an interest in improving ties with India.

Often heard in private conversation, but rarely in public speeches, is Indian resentment that the United States (and other Western countries) seem far more interested in China than in India. Many Indians compare the constant stream of businessmen visiting China with the still modest flow to India, and are skeptical that Western expectations for the China trade will materialize. At the same time—and this is only rarely articulated—they seem worried, with good reason, that China may penetrate international markets and preempt opportunities for Indian exports. Rajiv Gandhi may well use the goad of Chinese competition to drive his own business and bureaucratic communities to greater efforts.

VII

There is no evidence that Rajiv Gandhi holds any of Mrs. Gandhi’s old personal suspicions of the United States, although he seems to have had few close relationships with Americans. He was sharply critical of alleged U.S. support for, or at least indifference to, the activities of Sikh nationalists in the United States last year. But he has also made plain to a variety of visitors that he would welcome friendlier and more active bilateral ties, particularly in science, technology and trade.

His government’s handling of the aftermath of the disaster in Bhopal, in December 1984, in which over 2,000 persons died from poisoning after an accident in a Union Carbide plant, has been marked by concern to avoid damage either to Indo-American relations or to the prospects for future American investment in India. He has scheduled two visits to the United States in 1985—one in June and another to attend the U.N. General Assembly in October—and although he has also accepted invitations to visit China and the Soviet Union (thus demonstrating that India’s nonaligned policies remain unchanged), the possibility of a new opening in U.S.-Indian relations seems enticing.

To be sure, the last four decades have seen other "openings" for improved relations, particularly under Ambassadors Chester Bowles, during the Truman Administration, and John Kenneth Galbraith, in the Kennedy Administration. Both proved short-lived because of tensions over American policies toward the region as a whole.

It was, of course, American links with Pakistan that were the central points of controversy both times. The U.S. bilateral security agreement with Islamabad and Pakistan’s membership in pro-Western security treaties (the now defunct Southeast Asia and Central Treaty Organizations) in the 1950s, U.S. arms sales to Pakistan in the last 20 years and, above all, the Indian conviction that the United States has backed Pakistan in each of its conflicts with India remain constant themes in Indian political discourse. U.S. rationales, focused on the global balance and on Soviet threats to the Middle East, have held no persuasion for India. Indian resentment of the United States on these issues is deeply felt and broadly based, and is almost certain to infuse some of Rajiv Gandhi’s thinking, as well as that of his advisers. It can be diminished in prominence; it can even be submerged if other aspects of Indo-U.S. relations develop. But the suspicion and its potential to emerge suddenly to impair bilateral ties remain under the surface and should not be ignored.

If large, currently planned increases in U.S. assistance to the Afghan guerrilla opposition materialize, Soviet air incursions and bombings inside the Pakistan border may become more intense. Mikhail Gorbachev took little time after assuming leadership in Moscow before warning Pakistan of the risks that support for the Afghan Mujahedeen might bring. The Indians are rightly concerned about the broad threat to subcontinental and, above all, Indian security that these developments pose. They are likely to oppose strongly Pakistani requests for stepped-up military assistance if Soviet pressure along the Afghan border mounts. And more direct U.S. efforts on behalf of Pakistan could easily lead to a replay of past deteriorations in Indo-U.S. relations.

At the very least, U.S. planning for Afghanistan, and for Pakistan, could well take much closer account of what the cumulative consequences of U.S. policy may be for India than has been the case thus far. Such cautions have been offered in the past but rarely have been heeded. Rajiv Gandhi’s trip to Washington in June offers an ideal opportunity for the United States to listen to Indian concerns as well as to try to persuade the Indian prime minister of U.S. views. The key problem is whether the remainder of this decade will see a significant rapprochement between India and Pakistan. It would be an act of great strategic courage for Rajiv to seek such a real, long-lasting understanding with Islamabad, and for Islamabad to reciprocate. But, even if an effort to relax tensions is on his and Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq’s mutual agendas for the next year or so, innumerable domestic and external hazards lie in wait to trigger tensions. The United States can do little to help change this state of affairs. But careful consideration of how U.S. policies—on arms, on help for the Afghan guerrillas, on nuclear proliferation and on aid—toward India and Pakistan may affect the other country is essential if the United States is to avoid being one of these hazards.

Any period of worsening Indo-Pakistani relations is also a bad period for Indo-U.S. relations. The real challenge for Rajiv—and for American leaders—will be to try to avoid such periods or to try to manage them when they occur.

Although the United States has wisely assured India it supports Indian efforts to seek a peaceful resolution in Sri Lanka, tensions between India and Sri Lanka are a lurking problem for the United States. The United States, sensibly, has made clear to both countries that it does not want to become involved. It has ignored recent Sri Lankan hints that the U.S. navy is welcome to call at the superb harbor of Trincomalee, which lies close to the area of heaviest Tamil population concentration on the island. A curious array of outside parties are already engaged in the Sri Lankan imbroglio, with China, Israel and Jordan quietly helping Sri Lanka, and the Palestine Liberation Organization and Libya assisting the Tamils. India, as usual, is suspicious of any outside moves in the area, and were Rajiv Gandhi not making a strong effort to keep the situation under control, it could easily boil over into generalized verbal attacks on "foreign intervention" that invariably would implicate the United States—even if only through Soviet disinformation efforts.

By building a broader framework for Indo-U.S. relations, both sides may have a stronger interest in minimizing the kind of damage to political confidence, and thereby to economic relationships as well, that has often occurred in the past. This is the strategy which the State Department, with support from the White House, is now following. The Indian government seems fully in support as well. It is a good policy but it cannot replace a strategy designed to avoid heightened military and political confrontation in the region.

VIII

For all the prime minister’s zeal for modernization, development challenges for the Indian economy remain immense. Population growth continues to far outstrip the creation of new employment opportunities and services. The economy has been growing at four to five percent a year, but urban and rural poverty levels remain almost as high as they were 30 years ago, despite the rise of tens of millions of Indians into the ranks of the middle class. The economy is still heavily over-regulated, and bureaucratic control remains stultifying. Industry is inefficient and increases in productivity are almost non-existent. Power, transportation and communication are all in short supply, as are external and internal capital resources. New technologies will help, but they are costly for a country already facing mounting debt repayment challenges later this decade.

In contrast to all these elements is an enthusiastic, ingenious and entrepreneurial labor force with large numbers of high school and college graduates, including many engineers, doctors and accountants. The internal market is vast and, like the Chinese market, anxious for diverse, high quality, reasonably priced goods. If India’s political and economic leaders can steadily hack away at the obstacles to growth—and that will require all the enthusiasm and commitment Rajiv Gandhi can summon—India’s economic rate of growth might rise to six or seven percent over the next decade, probably not more. Ideally, New Delhi would like to attract development aid, but will probably have to make do with enhanced opportunities for trade and investment from abroad. Japanese, American and European businessmen who, with Indian counterparts, become part of this development process could reap great benefits if they are willing to take the risk and if the Indian government provides the incentives for them to do so.

Until very recently, the Indian attitude toward American investment and trade has been that the initiative was up to the United States—unlike, for instance, China’s recent efforts to seek out, encourage and woo foreign investors, technology transfers and trade. Individuals and officials of India and the United States often grate on one another, in ways which Americans and Chinese seem to be able to avoid. The image of Indians has languished in the United States, though polls since 1983 show India beginning to move up in the general esteem of most Americans. The successful film Gandhi and positive reactions to A Passage to India and the television series The Jewel in the Crown seem to have helped foster an increasing interest in India among Americans.

The Year of India, scheduled to start in June 1985 and to be opened by Rajiv Gandhi and Mrs. Reagan, may build on this base and strengthen both real interest and sympathetic curiosity. American banks and major corporations have started looking more actively into India as a site for overseas expansion. They have been encouraged by the relatively buoyant Indian economy since 1982, India’s strong credit rating, new investment in telecommunications and, probably, Japanese success in trade and investment ventures (five major Japanese car-makers plan to assemble and manufacture automobiles and trucks; other Japanese companies intend to produce electronic components). U.S.-Indian trade has been growing, and small but potentially significant contracts have been concluded for high technology transfers including computers, silicon wafers and telecommunications equipment between business firms. In November 1984, India and the United States concluded a memorandum of understanding on technology transfers, which may help further broaden cooperation and strengthen the hand of American businessmen in matching or beating European and Japanese competitors for the Indian market.

U.S. investment in India has grown steadily but slowly in recent years, mainly through technology licensing contracts. Total U.S. investment in India by the end of 1983 was $463 million, and was probably about $475 million at the beginning of 1985. As in China, the primary attraction for foreign investors has been the huge, relatively untapped domestic market and low wage rates. The overregulated character of the Indian economy, on the other hand, and uncertainty about the stability of the Indian labor force and political tranquility in the country, have argued for caution.

The liberal and rational economic policies of the last few years, on which the new Gandhi government seems determined to build, could ease the concerns of American companies and result in a significant upturn in Indo-U.S. economic ties.

IX

India has shown itself to be remarkably stable, despite the constant iteration of threats to national unity and integrity. Such warnings are echoes of past fears, not current realities.

A long list of challenges to this statement could be drawn from the preceding pages—economic, social, political, religious, sectional. But India’s stability lies in its very size and complexity, and in the fact—and it is truly a fact—that, regardless of their diversity and of the tensions that exist as a result, Indians from the southern tip of Kanyakumari to the Himalayas do think of themselves as "Indians" with a common nationhood, and they are proud of it.

Instability in the Punjab is serious but, demonstrably, it does not generate weakness everywhere. If India’s efforts to develop an electronics industry were to falter, this would be serious for some major Indian development objectives but would go almost unnoticed by most of India’s 765 million people. The failure of the monsoon is always serious for millions of Indians, but monsoons rarely fail three years in a row and agriculture has become strong enough to produce significant surpluses in the good years.

Regardless of how bad the government in New Delhi may be or who rules there, the inertial weight of 3,000 years of history and custom, two centuries of British rule and 40 years of independent government, of well-established patterns of local village and district administrations, and of the myriad interwoven threads of Indian society, has proven a tremendous force for stability. If India is hard to move and to change, it is equally resistant to transient threats. A former member of the Indian Communist Party summed it up: "I left the Party forty years ago, since Revolution in India seemed impossible. And nothing has happened to change my mind since."

India remains the anchor and bulwark of South Asia against outside invaders or aggressors. India has the strongest motives for joining with Pakistan in resisting full-fledged Soviet aggression, just as it would resist with vigor a Chinese, U.S. or any other "threat" to the region. There can be no doubt that on this issue Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and any prospective Indian leader would stand as one.

The core of an effective American strategy in this region should be good relations with India. This does not entail an Indian veto on U.S. relations with Pakistan or other countries in the area, or require that those relations track at all times with those of New Delhi. Indo-U.S. relations are not likely to run smoothly and calmly at all times. But, in the long run, American interests will not be served by good relations with other countries of the subcontinent if its relations with India are poor. There will be hard issues on which American presidents and Indian prime ministers may have to agree to disagree, but close consultation and genuine concern for the interests of India may help to build bridges over these difficult issues.

This is likely to require the United States to take a less dogmatic view of Indian relations with the U.S.S.R. than has sometimes been the case in the past. But if Washington can show tolerance on this issue, and if Rajiv Gandhi is ready to look seriously and sympathetically at the broad American interests in Asia, the new Indian government could be the best thing that has happened for the United States, and for other friends of the United States in the region, in decades.

  • Paul H. Kreisberg served several tours of duty in India since 1952 as a Foreign Service officer and was Deputy Director of Policy Planning in the State Department in the late 1970s. He is now Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • More By Paul H. Kreisberg