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Better US - Indian Relations in Sight

WITH Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's call for elections on Nov. 22, India moves into the United States's foreign policy spotlight. The US government and the news media will tend to focus on the horse race - who's ahead and who's behind. But the real story is that whomever is chosen will lead India to better relations with the US. Two parallel trends make this more than a possibility: (1) the biggest foreign policy obstacles to improved US-Indian relations are evaporating, and (2) the Indian economy is developing so that Washington can play a constructive role.

Superpower dynamics have defined US-Indian relations virtually since India's independence in 1947, and certainly since the US tilted toward Pakistan during the India-Pakistan war. Changes in these dynamics, along with internal changes in India, provide the best chance for a country to move out of the Soviet sphere of influence since Nasser took Egypt out of the Soviet camp in 1972.

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The Soviet Union is reassessing its global role and intends for its foreign policy commitments to be undertaken on a more limited basis than in the past. Whether this is for economic reasons or because of a change in ideology, whether it's a long-term or a short-term shift, can all be debated. What is unmistakable is that a treaty or commitment from the Soviet Union means less today to an ally than it did several years ago. Thus it behooves India in the name of prudence to strike a more balanced pose in its relationship with its closest ally - the Soviet Union.

Beyond that, US relations with India's two prime antagonists - Pakistan and China - will cool over the next year or two. A range of problems in US relations with Pakistan - from incipient Islamic fundamentalism to Pakistani nuclear policy, which have been submerged in the interest of unity in assisting the Afghan guerrillas - will assume greater importance as the Afghan conflict moves to resolution. Meanwhile, US relations with China will cool in the wake of China's brutal quashing of the reform movement.

In addition to these foreign policy reasons, domestic Indian reasons for a pro-American tilt are no less important. Most significant is the economic reality. India's growing prosperity has resulted in a sizable middle class with conventional consumer preferences. Since he came to power in 1984, Mr. Gandhi has systematically reformed the economy.

Although Gandhi is no Margaret Thatcher in tackling economic inefficiencies, he has followed a course of economic rationalization: lowering tariffs and restrictions on foreign investment, selling off some of the inefficient state-run industries, and liberalizing the business sector. These changes will spur economic growth, and they will also allow foreign companies to play a larger role in the Indian economy.

In the 1960s, India shunned foreign investment, enacted trade barriers, and had attitude hostile to business. Now India welcomes foreign investment and industrialized trading partners. ``Even as a relatively poor country, we have a sizable middle class of 150 to 200 million people,'' says India's former ambassador to the US, P.K. Kaul. Last year US investment in India jumped some 20 percent, and US-India trade leaped 34 percent.

IS this scenario, in which the US is lessening as an adversary in foreign policy and growing in importance as an economic partner, too rosy? Possibly. Anti-Americanism will undoubtedly heat up during the campaign. Additionally, India's regional policies, including troops in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, petty border politics with Nepal, and traditional tensions with Pakistan raise questions about India's willingness to play a responsible role. Ethnic and religious differences, and even crop failures or domestic scandals, would undermine prospects for continued reform. Finally, the longstanding ties to the Soviet Union, forged over decades, will weaken only gradually.

But the Bush administration can take advantage of these trends and prove that the two largest democracies can work together for their mutual advantage. The stage is set, the spotlight is on, and the casting will soon be completed. We will soon see how the drama plays out.

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