Fresh Start for India and U.S.

May 21, 1994

Visits by prime ministers of India to Washington seem to fall into a pattern. In press conferences and briefings for reporters, both U.S. and Indian officials describe an amicable exchange of views, sometimes conflicting but never contentious, which has established a good personal relationship between the president and prime minister. Later, sometimes much later, the citizens of both countries learn that the talks did not go as swimmingly as had been described.

Whether this week's visit of Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao follows this pattern is a matter for future disclosures. The fact it occurred at all is significant in view of the chilly relations between the two countries for some years. The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, India's buffer against what it sometimes saw as U.S. meddling, did not eliminate all the irritants. Two in particular are serious: India's divergent policy on nuclear non-proliferation and its harsh security measures in Kashmir.

The two issues are linked. India, whose nuclear facilities are not subject to international inspection, has exploded a nuclear device and presumably has or could quickly assemble a weapon. Neighboring Pakistan also has or is on the verge of producing its own. The two nations, divided by religion but with much in common, are in a perpetual state of quasi-hostilities over Kashmir. U.S. officials rate the region a high-risk area for nuclear confrontation.

No specific progress appears to have been made on either issue, while U.S. officials insist none was expected. Balancing its relationship with the two South Asian neighbors has been a difficult challenge for Washington, one it has not always handled skillfully. But the cold-blooded realities have modified the equation. With the end of the Soviet intrusion into Afghanistan and opening of direct U.S.-Chinese relations, Pakistan no longer weighs as heavily in Washington's calculations. The removal of Soviet support and gradual introduction of free-market economics in India has turned it more to the U.S., now its leading trade partner.

Even if President Clinton and Prime Minister Rao did hit it off personally as well as their spokesmen claim, there will still be RTC rocky moments in the relationship. Washington remains the favorite whipping boy of many Indian politicians. Still, domestic forces are turning India inexorably toward the U.S. Long a beacon of democracy in a continent where its fragility is a given, India is shedding its old socialist shibboleths and is becoming the modern industrial giant it long promised to be. That will prove to be the tie that binds.

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