New Delhi — The Soviets have stepped up their propaganda war in India, even as their Afghan stalemate continues.
Indian officials report that almost three times a week the New Delhi airport clears a special aircraft discharging enormous packages.
One estimate is that the Soviets fly in some 10 tons of propaganda material almost every day, for distribution in India's major cities. Moscow watchers also say the Soviets bring in vast quantities of material by sea.
Because Western embassies sometimes complain about the polemics from Soviet and East-bloc embassies, India's Ministry of External Affairs has asked to be able to preview samples of all foreign propaganda material, such as journals and press releases.
But a senior official was quoted as declaring: ''Very few replies have come in response to this circular.''
The widely circulating magazine, Sunday, found that the Russians spend in one month as much as the Americans do in one year.
And the American propaganda file is not tiny, either. The United States Embassy spends more than $6 million on its publications, staff, and other cultural activities annually.
However, the Russians, most observers agree, are miles ahead of American propagandists in the ''war of words.'' For instance, you can buy a bound volume of speeches by President Brezhnev for about half a dollar. The US has nothing comparable from its own leaders.
A large quantity of Soviet propaganda material is circulated to inform India's nearly 700 million people how the Soviets are said to have improved their quality of life, maintained peace in the world, and picked up India as a special friend.
Radio Moscow broadcasts 123 hours a week in English and at least five other Indian languages. The BBC claims that it has some 30 million listeners in India, while the Russians have only just one-third of this audience. Apart from the official Radio Moscow, the Soviets also beam propaganda material to India from their station called ''Peace and Progress'' and from Radio Tashkent.
As the Sunday analyst notes, the Russians are way ahead of the Americans in their hide-and-seek game with the Indian news media. They strike at the grass roots. They are in touch with the masses, not with the elite.
The Soviet Information Center, for example, sends out half a dozen magazines, some of them in glossy format. The Soviet Land, for instance, is printed in 13 Indian languages. News agents throughout the country sell this magazine for about 25 cents.
According to official statistics, more than half a million copies of The Soviet Land printed in 13 languages were distributed throughout India in 1979. In comparison, the American magazine, Span, has less than one-third of the Russian circulation.
The Russians also use other tactics such as state-sponsored visits by students, local politicians, members of Parliament, journalists, lawyers and writers, and even newspaper vendors to the Soviet Union.
As one observer says: ''The Russians invite not only those politicians who hold power but also those who may be in a position of ministerial responsibilities 10 years from now.''
Again, while India sent 110 delegations to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Soviets reciprocated by flying 140 goodwill missions, cultural delegations, and other groups in 1979. Soviet press officers are known to visit newspaper offices as frequently as possible, often distributing bottles of vodka and Scotch whisky are fairly common.
Russian junior diplomats often visit junior editors or night shift workers. Since some Russian press officials stay in India for year, these carefully cultivated contacts have a chance to pay off later.
One senior editor of a local language newspaper in Punjab, with a great deal of political influence, told the Sunday Magazine: ''I feel much more comfortable with the Russians. They are just like us.''
And through their People's Publishing House, which has a network of 70 booksellers and agencies all over India, the Soviets sell children's books from Moscow, fiction, the latest Russian artwork, calendars and magazines.
The Soviets haven't stopped at low-priced distribution of political books, fiction, and magazines. They sell editions of classics like Tolstoy for less than a dollar each. They have even published the Muslim holy book, the Koran, in Tashkent. Thousands of copies were airlifted to the Kashmir Valley and distributed free of cost as evidence of Soviet backing for Islam.
The Russians are also winning on another front. They have assisted in the formation of Indo-Soviet friendship societies that have more than 200,000 members. An investigation done by External Affairs Ministry officials shows that these societies are funded by the Soviet Embassy, which derives a large number of rupees generated by the ever-increasing Indo-Soviet trade.
This is now rivaled by a new organization called Friends of the Soviet Union, which is backed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi herself. She believes that the Soviet-backed friendship societies are not in the national interest.