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Old India Mood, New Ideas Await Gorbachev Visit

November 23, 1986|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — When Nikita S. Khrushchev and Nikolai A. Bulganin visited India in 1955, they were given such a rousing welcome that their security staff panicked.

As 2 million Indians cheered the Kremlin leaders in Calcutta, Soviet security men worried that the two men might be killed in the crush. So Khrushchev, then the Soviet Communist Party's first secretary, and Bulganin, the premier, were transferred from the open car in which they were riding to a prison van. A nervous Soviet official reportedly asked that Indian troops be called out, and, if necessary, ordered to open fire.

It was the biggest, noisiest greeting ever received by Soviet leaders outside their own country. "A feast of friendliness," Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called it.

The visit was also a watershed for the Soviet Union's relations with India and, in fact, with the rest of the developing world. In the three decades since, the Soviet Union and India have formed one of the strongest, if oddest, partnerships between nations.

That enduring relationship, so often lamented by Western leaders, will be highlighted again this week with the visit of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to New Delhi.

It will be Gorbachev's first official visit to a developing country since he became Communist Party general secretary in March, 1985. (Similarly, the Soviet Union was the first country visited by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi after his election in December, 1984).

For security reasons, largely prompted by the assassination of a Soviet diplomat here last year, Gorbachev's visit beginning Tuesday will be of much lower profile than the one made 31 years ago by Khrushchev and Bulganin or the 1973 and 1980 visits by Leonid I. Brezhnev.

Gorbachev is not expected to leave the capital. No mass rallies are scheduled. His most important speech is expected to be before a joint session of the Indian Parliament.

However, the Gorbachev visit comes at a time of shifting interests in the region.

Gorbachev's recent moves to normalize relations with China, outlined in a July 28 speech in Vladivostok, have some Indian officials worried. India fought a border war with China in 1962 and remains suspicious of Chinese intentions. Indo-Soviet relations have flourished during the 15-year split between China and the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, there is concern on the Soviet side about Indian dealings with the United States and other Western countries.

Main Arms Supplier

For more than 20 years, the Soviet Union has been the main supplier of weapons and military equipment to India. In some years more than 80% of all Indian military imports came from the Soviet Union.

In many instances--the delivery of new MIG jet fighters, for example--India's needs are given priority over the needs of Soviet Bloc countries in Eastern Europe. Not only does the Soviet Union sell weapons to India at very good rates, it also licenses the Indian government to manufacture its own equipment, including MIG-21 fighters for its air force.

So Soviet diplomats stirred recently as the Indian government under Rajiv Gandhi revealed increased interest in buying weapons and technological hardware from the West. This was emphasized in a recent visit to India by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, the highest-ranking American defense official ever to visit India.

"During the last few months, there has been some nervousness in some quarters in India about Sino-Soviet relations," said Ambady K. Damodaran, a member of Gandhi's policy advisory committee and an expert on the Soviet Union. "There has been corresponding nervousness, perhaps not so explicitly articulated, in the Soviet Union about India's improving relations with the United States."

At least part of the Gorbachev visit is expected to consist of a Soviet attempt to soothe the Indians about China and an Indian attempt to reassure the Soviets about new links with the United States.

Treaty Renewal Question

Gorbachev is expected to ask Gandhi about renewal of the 20-year Soviet-Indian treaty of friendship that was signed in 1971. Diplomatic sources said that when Gandhi visited the Soviet Union in May, 1985, Gorbachev asked him about the treaty and Gandhi refused to commit himself to an extension.

The Soviet leader may also broach the subject of an Asian-Pacific collective security system that was first proposed by Brezhnev in 1969 and resurrected in July by Gorbachev in his Vladivostok speech outlining a rapprochement with China.

However, Damodaran and other Indian officials and former officials who were interviewed warned against expecting any fundamental change in Indo-Soviet relations as the result of either development. The partnership between the two countries is too strong and too important to be disrupted, they said.

"When we say the Soviet Union is our friend," said Inder Gujral, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, "we are not making any hyperbolic statement. We are stating fact."

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