LONDON — London.- "We do not accept the Indian claim that [Kashmir] is part of India, and I daresay if you could get an honest reading of the positions of the Soviet Union and China you will find out just about the same,'' said Robert Oakley, U.S. Ambassador to India, last August.
True enough, but Kashmir matters a great deal to India. The dispute over India's only Muslim-majority state, annexed in contro- versial circumstances in 1947, has been the trigger for two of India's three wars with Pakistan, and 3,700 people have been killed in the anti-Indian rebellion that has raged in Kashmir for the past two years.
So why would Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's government cozy up to Washington when American diplomats openly state that they do not recognize India's claim to Kashmir?
Simply because there is no longer anybody else to cozy up to. India's long alliance with the Soviet Union has simply evaporated with the disappearance of that country, and Boris Yeltsin's Russia doesn't want to continue it in any form.
In January, for the first time in 30 years, there were no ships of the Soviet navy in the Indian Ocean. President Yeltsin has removed from the draft Indo-Russian treaty the old commitment to mutual assistance in case of war that was the cornerstone of the 1971 Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty, and is showing no interest in any kind of special relationship with New Delhi. The Indians, in other words, have been cut loose.
Now, you might think that 850 million people, a million-man army and what is politely known as a ''threshold'' nuclear weapons potential (''just give me 10 minutes while I tighten the last bolt'') makes India strong enough that it doesn't need a superpower ally. But you would be wrong. New Delhi always felt that the Soviet alliance was absolutely indispensable, and it has been in a tearing hurry to replace it.
Part of the problem is China, the only country in the world more populous than India. There was a border war between the two neighbors in 1962, and China has an even bigger army than India and many more nuclear weapons.
China's Prime Minister Li Peng was in India in December, the first visit by a Chinese premier in 31 years, and at the end of it he and Prime Minister Rao issued a denunciation of ''international oligarchies'' that sounded like the good old days of the non-aligned movement.
But it was all just smoke and mirrors. There were no breakthroughs on the border issue -- and besides, who would tie themselves to the moribund regime of Li Peng and his octogenarian puppet-masters?
A far more serious problem for New Delhi is Pakistan. There are only about 110 million Pakistanis, but their country has a long land border with India, they have a bitter grievance against India about Kashmir -- and Pakistan also has nuclear weapons which it developed specifically to match the Indian capability.
Until recently, Pakistan also had the United States as its arms supplier and chief ally. So long as India had its Soviet ally, that equation more or less balanced out. But in the past two years the old Indo-Soviet alliance has been visibly dying, to New Delhi's vast and understandable alarm.
The only consolation was that at the same time, fortuitously, the American-Pakistani alliance was hitting very rough waters.
The U.S. quarrel with Pakistan is entirely about the Pakistani nuclear-weapons program, which defies America's strong support for nuclear non-proliferation. Islamabad suspended its program in 1989 under a secret bilateral accord with Washington, but no sooner was Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto overthrown in 1990 than her successors re-started work on the bomb.
So in October 1990 President Bush suspended American aid and military assistance to Pakistan. Just in time for India to start courting Washington seriously.
Timing is all. The Pakistani generals, obsessed with their nuclear ambitions, effectively freed the United States from its long-standing commitment to Pakistan. And then along came India, in trouble, in a hurry, and in the market for a new ally.
New Delhi didn't quibble about the American position on Kashmir, or anything else for that matter. The object has been to get the Americans signed up before the Pakistani military came to their senses (not that there really seems to be any immediate danger of that), so it was not an appropriate time to haggle about Washington's price.
President Bush would like India to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel and open an embassy in Tel Aviv? No problem.
The U.S. army would like direct relations and close cooperation with the Indian army, including a joint Indo-U.S. army steering committee? Coming right up.
How about joint exercises by the U.S. and Indian navies in the Indian Ocean? Consider it done.
This has all come to pass in the space of only a few months, and Indian public opinion is only now waking up to the fact that the country's alliances have changed. Given the reflex anti-Americanism of most educated Indians, Mr. Rao is going to have a rough ride when they all finally figure out what has happened.
But is he wrong? Not by the traditional canons of diplomacy, which say that your alliances must be guided by your interests, not your preferences. If there's even a remote likelihood of another war with Pakistan (and there is), then it is infinitely worth a few petty humiliations to ensure that America is on India's side, rather than allied to the opposition.
Gwynne Dyer is a columnist on international relations.