New Delhi — The Indian tiger is not purring at the rapid advance of the Russian bear into nearby Afghanistan . . . but it is not snarling either. In the increasingly sensitive area of Asian geopolitics, India is more inclined in the last resort to come down on the side of the Soviet Union to offset the challenge of immediate neighbors China and Pakistan.
Nevertheless the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan, which bordered pre-1947 India, places this traditionally nonaligned country in a quandary.
With the single exception of one of the Communist parties -- the Communist Party (Marxist) -- all the major political personalities including Indira Gandhi , although more reservedly, have criticized Moscow.
At the same time it seems that Indian condemnation comes more out of sorrow than anger. And, significantly, India appears to be taking a back seat in the international fight to take action against Moscow.
The reasons are not diffic ult to find.
Romesh Thapar, editor of the intellectual magazine Seminar, says, "We have related quite closely with the Soviet Union. There have been no points of difference. They have always helped us out when we needed it. Suddenly this system of collaboration has come under strain."
A Western diplomats here agrees with the assessment. "The Soviet position is very strong here," he says. "That strength rests on the conviction that strong ties with the Soviets serve India very well as a source of modern weapons, and giving it goods it would not otherwise have."
The Soviets have boosted trade with India and recently offered a new trade pact agreeing to help meet India's chronic cement shortage and to continue supplying crude oil beyond 1980.
In return, Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave the Kremlin categoric assurance that "India would not normalize relations with China at the cost of dependable friends like the Soviet Union."
The Soviet Union, which signed a friendship treaty with India in 1971 and which played a big role in India's defeat of Pakistan in the same year, is India's security blanket against both China and Pakistan.
As a result India is more upset by the offer of US arms to Pakistan than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that prompted the American decision.
Says an Indian source: "The traditional reaction in India is that you are arming a force that will be used against us, so you look for a counter. What is the counter? The counter is the Soviet Union."
To non-Indian sources, India's obsession with a now-defeated and economically ailing Pakistan is misplaced.
Militarily and economically India bestrides South Asia like a colossus. It has more people than the continents of Africa and Latin American combined. It is the only Asian country -- China, Vietnam, Japan, and Indonesia included -- that has an aircraft carrier. Its naval forces are thought to compare favorably with those of France.
Only Iran, as a result of the Shah's frantic arms-buying, rivals India militarily in the area. But strategists doubt that Iran, even if it regained internal stability, could match India in naval superiority, wider tactical experience in the field, and impressive technological maintenance ability.
Comparison with Pakistan become even more one-sided. India outclasses Pakistan in every respect.
In terms of manpower India has just under 1 million men under arms. It has a 46,000-strong Navy, and 100,000-strong Air Force, with about 661 combat aircraft.
Pakistan, by contrast, has an Army of 40,000, a Navy of 11,000, and an Air Force of 18,000 with 257 combat aircraft. Pakistan's Air Force is by its own accounts antediluvian.
As a rule, Indians do not feel that Pakistan of itself represents any threat. But they do feel fervently that Pakistan with foreign backing -- in this case the United States -- might provoke trouble.
Looming even larger than Pakistan is China.
India perceives China as a continuing hostile threat. The Chinese attack on Vietnam while Indian Foreign Minister Vajpayee was still in Peking on a state visit deeply disturbed India. It helps account for the fact that the new Gandhi government was committed in advance of its election victory to recognize the pro-Vietnamese Heng Samrin government in Cambodia -- a move bound to please Moscow.
One diplomatic source says, "It would not be an endorsement of Vietnam per se , but a realization that Vietnam stands, as a bulwark against Chinese expansion in Asia."