The crisis over Afghanistan is having two immediate geopolitical effects. These are: * A shifting of the arena of the superpower struggle eastward from the Middle East, already under way with the revolution in Iran, toward Central Asia. This is bringing China more directly into the game.
* A reassertion of the pentagonal, or five-sided, power relationship involving the United States, the Soviet Union, China, India, and Pakistan. This has long overlapped the more obvious triangular relationship among the US, the Soviet Union, and China.
In India, the three years between Indira Gandhi's last premiership and her present return to power was marked by a foreign policy of good neighborliness toward all India's neighbors. This embraced not only Pakistan and Bangladesh but also the independent Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan -- and even China.
But events in Afghanistan have brought both China and the US into more active involvement in the subcontinent. Now the question is: Will US and Chinese efforts to block Soviet expansion prompt a relapse in Indian-Pakistani relations and a parallel resurgence in Indian-Soviet relations?
Mrs. gandhi is first and foremost a proud Indian nationalist. She is neither a Soviet puppet nor a closet communist. Although in 1971 she signed the treaty of peace, friendship, and cooperation with the Soviet Union -- still in force -- she probably would be as concerned as anybody if India suddenly found itself with the Soviet Army or a soviet puppet-state on its borders.
Indeed, Mrs. Gandhi is quoted as telling a French correspondent Jan. 8 that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was a threat to India, although one for which the US was basically responsible.
But Mrs. Gandhi, like most of her compatriots and like the people and rulers of neighboring Pakistan, carries with her the baggage of history. Ever since the with drawal of the British from the subcontinent and the establishment of a predominantly Hindu India (population today, 650 million) and a predominantly Muslim Pakistan (population today, 75 million), both peoples have been influenced by memories of the past.
Indians have difficulty in exorcizing the fear that the Muslims of Pakistan might one day spearhead a move to restore the Muslim empire which the Moguls -- ancestors of the Pakistanis -- once ran from Agra and Delhi, before the arrival of the British in the 18th century.
The Pakistanis, on the other hand, have difficulty in exorcizing the humiliation inflicted on them when they found themselves playing second fiddle to India in the subcontinent after the departure of the British in the 20th century.
When Pakistan allied itself with the US in the 1950s, India buttressed itself by moving closer to the Soviet Union. When Mao Tse-tung's China asserted itself in Tibet, on India's northeastern frontier, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru saw a threat to India and reacted forcefully against the Chinese. In response, the Chinese not only decided to teach India a lesson militarily but also drew much closer to Pakistan.
With the Russians now in Afghanistan, the US and China are moving to coordinate support to Pakistan, which has become a frontline state facing the Soviet Army. The Russians will do their best to arouse Indian fears of what that might imply for India. Mrs. Gandhi's reaction to this may be shaped by a perception that a Pakistan boosted by the US and China is a more immediate threat to India than an Afghanistan occupied by Soviet troops.
If the scenario moves in this direction, the Chinese might be tempted to counter by encouraging recent tendencies in the Himalayan buffer kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan toward a greater independence from India.
Mrs. Gandhi is unlikely to stand for this kind of getting out of step with India. It remains to be seen how China would then respond.