Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's visit to the United States gives President Reagan a window of opportunity to mend relations and provide a basis for mutual trust between the two leaders of functioning democracies.
The President has reason for such a rapprochement.
Mrs. Gandhi's government seems to be moving away from a pro-Soviet foreign policy to stronger links with the West. The most recent developments in the policy shift are: purchase of 40 Mirage 2000 jet fighters from France, new diplomatic initiatives in dealing with Pakistan and China, winning a new friend by a visit to Saudi Arabia, and an interest in American military equipment.
On the economic front, Mrs. Gandhi's administration has concluded that economic growth lies in the private sector, rather than a controlled central economy. She has lifted controls on imports, private sector expansion, licensing , plant capacity, and foreign investment.
These policy shifts are important signals to the Reagan administration, an indication that Mrs. Gandhi is willing to start a new chapter in India-US relations. The administration should follow through with these steps:
* US foreign policy strategists have regarded India with benign neglect in spite of its dominant role in South Asia and the Gulf region. The Reagan administration can improve relations at little cost by courting India on regional and global issues. This means consulting with and informing India about US interests in the region, recognizing and accepting India's role as an independent world power, promoting India as a model of democratic society to communists and authoritarian countries, and catering to India's national pride.
* The US should encourage Mrs. Gandhi's attempt to reach out to Pakistan and China. President Reagan might propose hosting a summit meeting between Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq and Mrs. Gandhi to sign an India-Pakistan nonaggression pact. A similar type of meeting was hosted by the Russians in Tashkent after the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war. A summit meeting under the auspices of the President would dispel Indian perceptions that the Reagan administration is particularly hostile to India.
* Indians view the US sale of F-16 and other military equipment to Pakistan as a threat to India's security and national interests. However, New Delhi has failed to dissuade Washington from selling the military hardware. So instead India showed interest in buying American military equipment. The list includes the Northrop F5G intermediate fighter, Howitzer, and an improved version of TOW antitank missiles.
President Reagan should permit these sales in order to give Mrs. Gandhi a defense against her anti-American critics.
* President Reagan should frankly tell Mrs. Gandhi that the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the situation in Poland are unacceptable to the Americans. The US will continue to provide arms and support to the Afghan guerrillas. The administration should indicate that it would consider it as a gesture of genuine friendship if the prime minister used her good offices toward improving US-Soviet relations by persuading the Russians to achieve a political settlement in Afghanistan. This, in turn, would enhance the role that Mrs. Gandhi seeks as an important leader on the international scene.
* Mr. Reagan should take this opportunity to brief Mrs. Gandhi on the Arab-Israeli war. She has a close relationship with PLO leader Yasser Arafat and other Arab leaders. These ties could be utilized by the US in formulating a new policy for the Middle East. Indian troops could be used in the multinational force in Lebanon. India has experience in international peacekeeping efforts since its troops participated in the International Control Commission in Laos in 1961.
* India is interested in attracting investments from the US. Mrs. Gandhi is taking steps to liberalize the economy and trade policies. India's impressive scientific manpower coupled with a diversified industrial infrastructure provide opportunities for American businessmen to invest in India. The expanding Indian market can offer outlets for American equipment and consumer goods.
Already big US companies such as Dow Chemical Company, Revlon Inc., Xerox Corporation, and DuPont are showing keen interest in investing in India. The Reagan administration should be pleased with India's economic policies and publicly give credit to Mrs. Gandhi for her efforts.
There is no real problem between India and the US except for poor communication and, consequently, mutual misperceptions. Given the President's proven communication skills with the American public and world leaders alike, he can do much to dispel this wall of misperceptions which separates the American and Indian peoples.