New Delhi — Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's trip to China comes at a controversial time for him. His administration is besieged by charges of corruption and mismanagement and his political fortunes have sunk to an all-time low. And, for weeks since the first hints of the visit to China leaked out, newspapers, commentators, and politicians have debated the wisdom of courting a country - an erstwhile and formidable enemy - which many Indians fear more than arch-rival Pakistan.
Memories of the 1962 war, in which the Chinese Army overran parts of northeast India and Indian troops fled in fear, still sting. In recent years, India has resisted Chinese proposals to settle the dispute. And in 1987, tensions prompted a troop buildup and border standoff between the two countries.
``The 1962 conflict between India and China and the defeat we sustained seriously compounded matters and left a permanent psychological scar on our minds,'' wrote A. P. Venkateswaran, a former ambassador to Peking, who has urged a more accommodating stance toward China.
Mr. Gandhi, who will be in China for five days beginning today, obviously feels the timing is right for a variety of reasons. The Indian premier's trip, analysts agree, is aimed primarily at keeping India in step with political changes in Asia that are spearheaded by none other than his Soviet ally, Mikhail Gorbachev. Gandhi's visit is sandwiched between Mr. Gorbachev's stop in New Delhi last month and the Soviet chief's planned summit in Peking next year.
Gandhi also hopes to lay groundwork for resolving the Sino-Indian border dispute. Indian officials are expected to push for setting up a panel to tackle the issue, stepped-up military contacts, and possibly a limited pullback of troops, analysts predict.
An overhaul of defenses and beefed-up Air Force operations, have made the Indian military more confident about holding sensitive border areas, defense analysts say. Reduced tensions also could help freeze the mounting defense burden.
Initial steps to improve cultural, scientific and economic ties could ready Indian public opinion for a border agreement down the road, analysts say.
``India has to make concessions if this border issue is going to get anywhere,'' says Giri Deshingkar, a China and defense specialist at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. ``But Gandhi will have to be careful so that it doesn't appear that India is giving territory away.''
Gandhi, who faces new elections within the coming year, also apparently hopes to reap political dividends at home.
``He thinks his stock will go up especially if he pulls off something that has been stagnating for the last 25 years,'' says a Western diplomat in New Delhi.
In Peking, Indian officials also will be jockeying for a place in the new Asian political order that could emerge from Gorbachev's friendly overtures toward Soviet neighbors.
As Moscow's closest ally in the region, India has long enjoyed a steady flow of weapons and other assistance from the Soviet Union. However, with Gorbachev warming up to the Chinese and other Asian neighbors, New Delhi worries it will be shunted to the sidelines.
By improving conditions along their common border, both India and China could turn to pressing internal problems, analysts say.
``The Indians and the Chinese are anxious to make this visit a success,'' says Mr. Deshingkar, the New Delhi analyst. ``Because if it backfires, it could set back relations 25 years.''