NEW DELHI — WHEN the senior US diplomat in charge of South Asia policy arrives here Friday, she can expect a Himalayan-size cold shoulder.
The icy reception awaiting Robin Raphel, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, will underscore India's anger at the Clinton administration for persuading Congress to approve delivery to Pakistan of US weaponry worth $368 million.
The Oct. 25 vote by a House-Senate conference committee has set off a vociferous anti-American outcry here.
Indians condemn it as tantamount to approval of their arch-foe's illicit nuclear-arms program and Pakistan's support for the Muslim separatist rebellion convulsing the disputed northern Kashmir region.
Some analysts believe Indo-US relations have suffered their worst setback since they underwent dramatic improvements with the end of the cold war and India's 1991 opening to foreign business. US-owned multinationals are by far the biggest foreign investors.
''The US has lost credibility in the Indian mind-set,'' says former Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit, a one-time Indian ambassador to Pakistan. He warns that the arms transfer from the United States will fuel the already dangerous tensions in the region by pushing India into a new weapons-buying spree. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since they won independence from Britain in 1947.
The US arms transfer to Pakistan is authorized by the Brown Amendment to the proposed fiscal 1996 Foreign Assistance Act, named after its sponsor, Sen. Hank Brown (R) of Colorado. It permits a one-time waiver of a 1990 law that freezes US military and economic aid to Islamabad because of its illegal nuclear-weapons program.
Defending their decision
In defending the amendment, the Clinton administration points out that Pakistan paid for the arms before the freeze, which halted their delivery. Clearing the transfer, it says, will win Pakistani help in fighting international terrorism and drug trafficking. The administration also says Pakistan, a moderate Muslim state, will cooperate in efforts to contain Iranian-sponsored Islamic extremism.
As for India's concerns, US officials respond that the weaponry being transferred, including C-3 Orion naval-reconnaissance aircraft and Harpoon antiship missiles and artillery, will not threaten India's military superiority.
But those assurances have done little to assuage Indian indignation, and find scant acceptance even among experts who acknowledge there will be no shift in the military balance.
''The Brown amendment has little military significance. But that's not the central issue,'' says former Maj. Gen. D. Bannerjee, the deputy director of the Institute for Defense and Strategic Analysis in New Delhi. ''Pakistan has developed a nuclear-weapons capability through deception, is in the process of conducting a proxy war in Kashmir, and is supporting terrorism.
''The US government, whose declared policies are against nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and [for] protection of human rights, is giving a clear signal to the whole world that it is willing to overlook these factors in the case of Pakistan,'' General Bannerjee continues.
A feeling of deja vu
The new anti-US mood is reminiscent of the cold-war days when India was a key Soviet ally and Pakistan was aligned with the US. And it shows how sensitive relations between the two neighbors remain, despite the improvements of the last several years.
Editorials, political commentators, opposition politicians, and the members of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's government have all been hitting out at the US action.
Protesters from the youth wing of Mr. Rao's Congress Party scuffled in New Delhi, the Indian capital, with police last Friday, while news of the American congressional vote helped send the Bombay Stock Exchange down 78 points.
Opposition leaders, girding for general elections expected next spring, are trying to make domestic political hay from the arms-transfer vote. Among other things, they contend that it shows US contempt for Rao because it was held while he was visiting the US.
''Through its many acts of omission ... the [US] government has by now seriously hurt our country's defense preparedness,'' asserts Jaswant Singh, a leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress Party's main rival.
Not to be outdone, government officials have indulged in their fair share of anti-US rhetoric. Home Minister S.B. Chavan, in a speech last week, charged the US is training Pakistani military-intelligence operatives and guiding their ''subversive activities in the neighborhood.'' It was a distinct reference to Kashmir.
Foreign Ministry officials, meanwhile, have let it be known that senior government representatives may shun Ms. Raphel, whom they already openly disdain for her perceived pro-Pakistan bias.
Yet while the rhetoric remains hot, US officials and some Indian analysts believe that the storm will eventually pass, especially given India's thirst for new US business.
They take solace in the absence of harsh rhetoric in the few statements made by Rao about the arms transfer and point to his fervent declarations of support for newUS investment.
Asserts one US official in Washington: ''Everything goes back to the fact that the elections are coming up. You will probably see a lot of talk, but not much action.''