As Prime Minister Indira Gandhi makes her first visit to the United States in a decade, she remains India's unquestioned national leader, even as acute problems in her party and country have come to the fore. Her visit to the US symbolizes the vigorous pursuit of a foreign policy that would give India greater options and autonomy.
India has seen dramatic changes in recent years: the internal emergency, Mrs. Gandhi's ignominious defeat in 1977, and rule by the Janata coalition, which failed to measure up to the task of governing the country. After some clever political footwork Mrs. Gandhi rode back to power in triumph in January, 1980.
The first year of her new term witnessed a great personal tragedy which had far-reaching consequences for the country. Her headstrong and sometimes ruthless younger son, Sanjay, who wielded considerable power without holding office and who was being groomed to succeed her, was killed in an air crash. The power structure in the party and government, being molded for the benefit of the succession, suddenly lost its rationale.
Mrs. Gandhi then persuaded her elder son, Rajiv, to enter politics. A pilot with the state-owned domestic airline, he had displayed little interest in succeeding his mother. But he was elected to parliament from his late brother's constituency and campaigned for his party in the recent elections to four state assemblies. So far, though, Rajiv has failed to make an impression on the political scene.
Mrs. Gandhi has been trying to cope with two sets of problems since Sanjay's death, one concerning her party and the other the administration of the country. Apart from the brief Janata interregnum, the Congress Party is the only one to rule the country nationally. But Mrs. Gandhi has split the organization twice to assert her dominance, rather in the manner of the Bolsheviks in Russia spuriously claiming a majority they later obtained.
The breakup of the mother party twice, with Mrs. Gandhi emerging each time as the leader of ''the'' Congress, had consequences for it and most of the other parties. The widespread but amorphous base of the Congress began to be starved at its roots. Although it remained the most efficient instrument for winning votes in elections, it lost its elan in the new personality cult growing around her.
Sanjay Gandhi had, in any event, effectively destroyed the traditions of the Congress by promoting a new breed of politicians who were particularly heedless in the means they used to achieve their objectives, often through gangster methods.
In the administration, too, the accent was on promoting civil servants who would do the politicians' bidding irrespective of merit. Corruption, which had been a hardy plant in the lower echelons of the administration, grew by leaps and bounds, the beneficiaries now including central Cabinet ministers, state chief ministers and legislators, party bosses, and civil servants at various levels.
Many of Mrs. Gandhi's men in the states have proved to be such good pupils of Sanjay that they built up their own little empires on a web of corruption which threatened to remain immune to the central Congress leadership's wishes. Mrs. Gandhi has yet to find an answer to this problem, because she is often forced to condone daring acts of defiance to keep the party together and form party governments in the states.
Yet she remains the national leader in the absence of an opposition party capable of challenging her at the central level, the brief period of Janata rule being a hindrance, rather than a help, for an opposition party seeking national honors.
Mrs. Gandhi has little interest in economics but is acutely sensitive to the impact of economic problems on her political support. In a world climate hostile to development aid, she has been increasingly taking to a more liberal economic regime while chanting socialist slogans, the staple diet of Indian politics, both domestically and in terms of international borrowing.
Given the limits of the public sector, Mrs. Gandhi realizes she must give the private sector, particularly the bigger units, the incentives to produce more, despite the official credo of encouraging the small entrepreneur. As for international borrowing, particularly the massive International Monetary Fund loan India has taken, the strategy is to achieve a breakthrough in the core sectors, especially oil exploration, to achieve a greater measure of economic autonomy.
It is, however, in the field of foreign policy that Mrs. Gandhi is making the most innovative moves. India's relations with the world are governed to a considerable extent by its special relationship with the Soviet Union. This stemmed from an early recognition of the USSR as the superpower on India's doorstep and the consequences of a souring relationship with the US.
It was not the intention of the first Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru , to be too closely aligned with the Soviet Union. But the American view of the world, at that time enunciated by John Foster Dulles, of a battle against communism collided with India's nonalignment. The American decision to recruit Pakistan in its system of military alliances to contain communism became an increasing source of irritation in the Indian-US relationship.
One of India's primary foreign policy goals, which is receding each day, has been to try to keep the superpowers out of the South Asian region. The US relationship with Pakistan, particularly in terms of arming it, was seen as a blatant negation of this goal.
There have been bright patches in the US relationship. The massive flow of American economic aid to India in the first decades of independence spoke of American recognition of and interest in India's potential, tinged though it was with the hope of a democracy's success in competition with communist China. And the US played a major role in India's ''green revolution.''
But tensions and irritations have never been far from the surface in relations between the two countries. With US encouragement, the West initially refused to sell India sophisticated weapons, thus forcing New Delhi to go to Moscow. The US was on Pakistan's side in the Kashmir dispute, which loomed large for decades. More recently, the US administration tilted toward Pakistan in the Bangladesh war, partly because it was beholden to Islamabad for helping to promote Henry Kissinger's secret China diplomacy.
The Reagan presidency hardly won cheers in India. In the Indian view, President Reagan was unsympathetic to the third world on the broader North-South questions and was something of a cold warrior. The new arms relationship with Pakistan was seen in New Delhi as an American attempt to use Pakistan in achieving its strategic goals, to the detriment of Indian interests. And there is the problem of American refusal to supply nuclear material for the Tarapur power plant.
But Mrs. Gandhi's first meeting with President Reagan in Cancun, Mexico, last year went off better than anyone expected. And her decision to see Mr. Reagan in Washington is an indication of her interest in improved relations with the US.
The main Indian interest is in trying to balance the rather lopsided relationship with Moscow, especially underlined by the 20-year friendship treaty signed in 1971 to cope with the looming Bangladesh war, with a more cordial Indian-US equation. Mrs. Gandhi's efforts in this direction began even before she lost power in 1977. She sent a full-fledged ambassador to Peking for the first time after the Chinese-Indian border war of 1962.
There has also been a deliberate policy to diversify defense purchases. India has in recent years acquired or signed agreements for the purchase of the Anglo-French Jaguars, West German submarines, and the Mirage 2000.
An opening to China is being explored. Two rounds of talks on the vexed border question have been held after an interval of two decades. Although there has been no real progress so far in resolving the issue, both sides have been making helpful noises. Prospects of an Indian-Pakistani rapprochement are less encouraging, but the two countries are at least talking about peace, rather than war.
There are no great expectations in New Delhi about the results of this Indo-US summit. The world views of the countries and their perceptions of their national and strategic interests are too far apart to be reconciled. The public and private views of India on Afghanistan are, however, very different. But it is the Indian hope that the visit will create a better atmosphere to promote more economic, cultural, and intellectual interchange, until such time that American and Indian policies have more in common. India remains a democracy, however anarchic it might appear to the outside world.