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Gandhi the troubleshooter. Indian leader eases strain with Pakistan, reassures smaller neighbors, and lessens internal strife

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Recent events in South Asia indicate that Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is making headway as a diplomatic troubleshooter for the subcontinent. A meeting here early this week between Mr. Gandhi and Pakistani President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq could mean that a long overdue rapprochement between both sides is in the offing.

At a joint press conference, President Zia and Gandhi pledged for the first time not to attack each other's nuclear installations. While it does not resolve the question of each country's nuclear plans, the pact suggests a new level of mutual confidence, which is likely to have an impact on the region in general, analysts say.

``This means that the acuteness of the nuclear issue has been blunted,'' says Bhabani Sen Gupta, an Indian political scientist with the Center for Policy Research. ``And it is a beginning, with a far-reaching potential for normalizing relations between the two countries.''

Analysts say that the new agreement may ultimately form part of a comprehensive bilateral peace treaty. It may open avenues for solving other issues like the border conflict or alleged terrorist movements in and out of India's Punjab State.

``For the most part, Gandhi has succeeded in reducing tensions in India and parts of the region,'' says a Western diplomat.

India also seems to be edging toward amicable resolutions of divisive issues with its smaller neighbors.

Gandhi recently said that India ``is prepared to hold meetings with both Nepal and Bangladesh.'' All three countries say they should share the benefits of the Himalayas water flow into the Ganges River.

Indo-Pakistan relations, the major flashpoint in southern Asia, have been marred by border clashes, three wars, and mutual suspicion since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Relations deteriorated in recent years, as both countries appeared intent on pursuing unsafeguarded nuclear development programs which do not preclude nuclear weapons capability.

Earlier this year, Gandhi stepped up accusations against Pakistan. Analysts now say that this was a carefully orchestrated campaign. It was timed for Gandhi's visit to the United States in June to discourage the US from renewing billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan without any Pakistani guarantees that it is not building nuclear bombs.

Despite the acrimonious atmosphere, Zia and Gandhi have sought every opportunity to meet.

Gandhi has moved away from politics of confrontation to politics of conciliation unlike his mother, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, analysts here say.


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