WASHINGTON — THE assassination of Indian ex-premier Rajiv Gandhi was a tragic act of violence, but in the short term it probably won't damage increasingly friendly United States-India relations, according to US officials and experts. Now that the end of the cold war has removed superpower politics from the Indian subcontinent, economics has become a driving force behind US-India ties. With the demise of the Soviet Union as an economic patron, India has had to turn more and more to the US and the West for desperately needed technology and aid. That is unlikely to change soon, no matter who emerges from the current election process as the country's leader.
Ironically, this shift in direction took shape during Rajiv Gandhi's 1985-89 term as prime minister. ``Mr. Gandhi's leadership during his term in office helped produce a rapid expansion of ties between the United States and India,'' says a State Department spokesman, adding that the US government deplored ``this senseless act of violence which insults the spirit of Indian democracy.''
In the long term, US relations with India depend on the stability and resilience of Indian democracy. If Gandhi's assassination leads to a rise in sectarianism, violence, and human-rights relations, US ties could suffer. The State Department's greatest concern is that Indian instability could heighten tensions between India and Pakistan, leading to a rerun of 1990, when the two countries almost came to blows over the issue of Kashmir separatists.
But a number of US analysts judge that such a scenario is unlikely. Among other reasons, they feel the assassination won't benefit the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
``Whether the US-India relationship goes up or down is more likely to be driven by economic issues than anything else,'' says Paul Kreisberg, a former US diplomat to India who now is with the Carnegie Endowment. With the Soviet Union barely able to keep its own factories going, India needs Western technology for everything from the military to such export industries as diamond cutting and cashew-nut processing. Through the early 1980s, US fears about India's then-closer relationship with the Soviet Unio n kept most US high-tech goods out of Indian hands. A 1984 agreement on technology transfer controls changed things; since then, US-Indian technology trade has grown tenfold.
India also needs the West's help to ease the cash-flow crunch caused by its $62 billion foreign debt. Further borrowing from commercial banks is all but precluded because of India's poor credit rating. But in recent months the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and bilateral donors, have been reluctant to come forward with further cash infusions unless India makes structural changes in its budget and other economic reforms.
The US also wants India to make changes in what it feels are unfair trade policies, such as lack of software copyright protection and other intellectual property issues. Last year the US cited India as an unfair trader under the Super 301 section of the Omnibus Trade Act. But it has yet to take significant retaliatory action such as raising tariffs on Indian goods, says Thomas Thornton, a National Security Council Asia expert during the Carter administration who now is with the Johns Hopkins internation al studies school.
Whatever the economic imperative, it was a political change that led to improved US-India ties in recent years. India has long been suspicious of the close relationship between its chief regional rival, Pakistan, and the US. But with the end of the cold war, Pakistan's importance to the US as a staging area for aid to Afghan guerrillas lessened. Now it's US relations with Pakistan that are feeling a chill, because of concerns over Pakistan's nuclear program. A year ago, at the height of the Kashmir cris is, President Bush dispatched deputy National Security Council director Robert Gates to the region. Mr. Gates told both sides, evenhandedly, to back off.
India now is ``much less worried'' about any US special relationship with Pakistan, says Professor Thornton.
So far, it is not clear who killed Rajiv Gandhi, and wide-scale rioting has yet to occur as of this writing.
Speculation has centered on Sri Lanka's Tamil separatists, though they have denied the charge. If Tamils are held responsible, the unrest is likely to be somewhat restrained, points out Ken Conboy, deputy director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation. Sikhs are widely spread throughout India and easily identified by their distinctive turbans. ``But the Tamil population is concentrated in the south, and it's harder to pick them out,'' says Mr. Conboy.