US, India mend diplomatic fences; Mrs. Gandhi seeks to change pro-Soviet image

The United States and India have made substantial progress toward resolving an eight-year-old conflict over nuclear fuel, White House officials say.

This appeared to be the most significant of several moves made by both the US and India recently in an effort to improve relations. The disclosure that the conflict over the American-built Tarapur nuclear power plant seemed on its way to being resolved came on July 29 as India's Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, met with President Reagan at the White House.

Viewed as ''pro-Soviet'' and ''anti-American'' by many Americans, Mrs. Gandhi has launched a carefully prepared public relations campaign during her visit here to show that the stereotyped image is wrong and that her country is in fact nonaligned, just as it has always purported to be. American specialists on India believe that the smile which the usually somber Mrs. Gandhi is showing the United States derives from a number of factors, among them concern over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Indian leader is also said to be interested in strengthening bilateral economic ties and obtaining US support for loans from multilateral lending institutions.

At a recent briefing here sponsored by the Asia Foundation, several American scholars concluded that Mrs. Gandhi felt the deterioration in relations with the United States had gone too far and that it was driving India into too heavy a dependence on the Soviet Union. She was concerned about Reagan administration decisions to sell F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan and to oppose an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to India, they said. The Indian leader wanted to shake the pro-Soviet label and reestablish her credentials as a leader of the nonaligned, a White House official added.

A warmer relationship was already in the making last October, when Mrs. Gandhi met President Reagan for the first time at Cancun, Mexico. The two leaders, so unalike in so many ways, seemed to get along well.

A White House official said that the US, India, and France were now close to agreement in principle that the Tarapur plant, which provides the city of Bombay with electricity, would be run with French-supplied nuclear fuel. The US is barred by its own laws from supplying the plant, because India has refused to accept full international inspection of the nuclear facilities. But under the new arrangement, American fuel already sent to Tarapur would only be reprocessed under international safeguards.

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