INDIA, a major force in the Persian Gulf even in the days of the British Raj, is the odd man out in the region's crisis. It has condemned the invasion of Kuwait, but it continues its long-term friendly ties with Iraq. It has refused to join the American call for active support of the blockade, pushing instead for shipments of food and medical supplies to refugees trapped in Iraq and Kuwait. And without fanfare, it is flying hundreds of its stranded citizens back from both countries.
Two fears account for India's behavior. First, India fears its economy could be severely damaged by the blockade. Second, it fears the growing tensions and possible violence in the Gulf could spill over onto the subcontinent.
Behind these short-term fears also simmers an anger that, as a major Indian Ocean power, India has been bypassed by the West, especially the U.S., in the shaping of policy toward Iraq.
India's economic stakes in the Gulf are clear. A major trading partner with Baghdad, India depended directly and indirectly on Iraq for some 45 percent of its oil imports this year. At least $60 billion of the $250 billion deposited by Indian workers abroad in India's banks have come from the earnings of Indians in Iraq and Kuwait alone. Indian ports are already clogged with goods destined for Iraq and Kuwait.
Aside from economic losses, India is worried about the political ripple effects of the explosive Gulf crisis. It is particularly suspicious of Pakistan's active military support of Saudi Arabia, seeing this in part as an effort to silence U.S. criticism of the undemocratic ouster of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
And it believes that joining the blockade could arouse angry reactions from Indian Moslems -- the world's second largest population of Moslems after Indonesia -- in turn exacerbating tense relations between the Moslem and Hindu communities. Already, Moslems have protested against the U.S. intervention in Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta, burning effigies of President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker.
Most media in India voice disgust at U.S. backing for the Gulf sheiks and U.S. armed intervention in a dispute they see mainly as an Arab problem.
Underlying these considerations is the fact that India has long had good relations with Iraq which it values for having one of the Arab world's few secular governments. Iraq was the first Moslem nation to recognize Bangladesh soon after India defeated Pakistan in 1971. And Iraq alone among all other Arab nations stood with India on the Kashmir question. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, by contrast, supported Pakistan's demand for a plebiscite in Kashmir. Saudi Arabia had just repeated its stand in favor of Pakistan the day before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
In the long run, what is likely to shape Indian thinking on the Gulf crisis is a deep resentment over the way its efforts to play a key role in regional peace-keeping and development have been ignored by the U.S.
India had welcomed the end of the Cold War as an opportunity to take the lead in developing a ''new and just world economic order.'' India also planned to propose a new security system for the Indian Ocean region which would include Arab nations now caught up in the Gulf crisis. And it has been mobilizing support to challenge the kind of privileged voting pattern in the U.N. Security Council of the five great powers which excludes India but includes a shrunken Britain and a vast China in many ways much less advanced than India.
India is a major power in the Indian Ocean and knows full well what any glance at a map reveals -- the Gulf is only a maritime extension of the Indian Ocean. If any long-term resolution of the Gulf crisis is to succeed, India is making it clear it must be a key player, not the odd man out.
Batuk Vora, a former Indian state legislator, is a correspondent for India Abroad.