India and US hope to clear the air before Gandhi visit to Washington

With Prime Minister Indira Gandhi heading to Washington next month for her first official visit in more than 10 years, both India and the United States appear bent on patching up their long troubled relationship.

Both sides are trying to accentuate such positives as trade, scientific, and technical ties, while acknowledging that they are poles apart on many bilateral and global issues.

The United States and India differ sharply on: the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, the American rearming of Pakistan, India's appetite for aid, and the US cutoff of nuclear fuel shipments to India's Tarapur atomic power plant. But both sides now cite a mutual willingness to look beyond the disputes toward areas of long-term agreement and common interest.

''There's been an attempt for some time now to avoid complicating our lives any more than we have to,'' says a US official.

On the Indian side, this has meant a substantial muting of India's usually shrill criticisms of US foreign policy. Diplomatic observers say that the conspicuous rhetorical tone-down over the past several months is directly tied to Mrs. Gandhi's talks with President Reagan, sheduled for July 29, and with congressional leaders the following day.

''The continued Indian willingness to forgo talking about some of the more contentious things is part of the preparation,'' a diplomat remarked.

''Mrs. Gandhi has stopped using the USA as a whipping boy for some time, election rhetoric apart,'' the Indian Express commented. ''Indeed, her recent criticism of US policies has been on the general plane, often coupled with sorrow that India was misunderstood.''

Indo-American tensions are more the result of misunderstandings than conflicts of national interest, aides to the prime minister have quoted her as saying. Mrs. Gandhi has remarked frequently this year that she got along well with President Reagan at their first meeting - at the North-South economic summit in Cancun, Mexico last October - and that she seeks better and warmer ties with the United States.

At the same time, she has stressed that any improvement in US relations will not be at the expense of the Soviet Union, with whom India is linked by a 1971 friendship treaty. Well aware that many Americans are suspicious of her strong Soviet ties, Mrs. Gandhi repeatedly asserts that India is neither pro-Soviet nor pro-American - just pro-Indian.

''She's interested in trying to set out an impression of India as essentially its own master, not dependent on anybody in particular,'' says a diplomatic observer. He predicted that one key Gandhi message to President Reagan will be: ''What sort of relations we want or can have with the Soviet Union is essentially our own business.''

Close Indo-Soviet ties go back to the 1950s, when the Soviet Union helped India set up public-sector steel plants and launch domestic oil exploration.

Mrs. Gandhi frequently narrates how the United States said no to Indian requests for help with heavy industrialization - an indication that events of that period still rankle.

The US at the time threw its aid efforts into agricultural development, helping India to launch its green revolution. India now claims food self-sufficiency, but US assistance is rarely cited - an ommission equally rankling to the US.

No dramatic breakthroughs in Indo-US relations are expected from the Gandhi-Reagan talks. But both sides are optimistic that the two leaders will gain a better notion of each other's perspectives on the divisive issues.

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