Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev is expected to visit India before the end of the year in what observers see as a bid for the Gandhi government's acquiescence -- if not support -- in the continued Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The timing of Mr. Brezhnev's first official visit to India since 1973 is keyed to a coming meeting of nonaligned foreign ministers in the Indian capital, tentatively set for February, according to diplomatic analysts here. Mr. Brezhnev's goal will be to enlist India's aid in softening or staving off any sharp third-world criticism of the Soviets' intervention in Afghanistan, they believe.
"The Soviets need a few more statements of suppoprt in their kind of words," says a Western diplomat. "They would love to have the Indians say the 'right things' on Afghanistan. But the Indians are not, from the Soviet point of view. They're waffling."
India would like Moscow to send its troops home from Afghanistan and has said so bluntly in private and diplomatic exchanges. But its public statements have been limited to expressions of disapproval of foreign troops in any country and disappointment that the Russian soldiers have lingered so long.
It has never condemned the Soviet move into Afghanistan last December. Initially it even defended it in the United Nations as a Russian response to an invitation by the Afghan government. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has maintained that the Soviet action cannot be seen in isolation -- implying that it was sparked by superpower rivalries in the Indian Ocean region.
India's stand on Afghanistan and its recognition of the Soviet-backed Heng Samrin regime in Cambodia (Kampuchea) have left it standing apart from much of Asia and the nonaligned world. Some analysts question how much further image-conscious India would be willing to go in support of the USSR.
"The Soviets already have a lot of support from the Indians. There's a limit to how much the Indians can provide," says a regional analyst. "They're not happy about Afghanistan, but they're not prepared to take any strong stands."
Mr. Brezhnev may, however, dangle the prospect of additional Soviet oil sales to India -- a potent inducement for a country urgently looking for crude and refined petroleum products in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war. Between them, the countries supplied 70 percent of India's oil imports.
Diplomats note that India apparently drew a blank when it asked the Soviet Union for extra 1980 oil supplies during a state visit by Indian President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy earlier this month. There is speculation that the Soviets are "saving" oil as a bargaining chip for Mr. Brezhnev's call on New Delhi, which may come in mid-December.
A return state visit so soon after Mr. Reddy's Russian trip is considered unusual. The close timing is apparently meant to highlight the importance Moscow places on Indo-Soviet friendship. The Soviet Union is India's major arms supplier, and the two countries are linked by a 1971 friendship treaty.