Gandhi the troubleshooter. Indian leader eases strain with Pakistan, reassures smaller neighbors, and lessens internal strife

Recent events in South Asia indicate that Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is making headway as a diplomatic troubleshooter for the subcontinent. A meeting here early this week between Mr. Gandhi and Pakistani President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq could mean that a long overdue rapprochement between both sides is in the offing.

At a joint press conference, President Zia and Gandhi pledged for the first time not to attack each other's nuclear installations. While it does not resolve the question of each country's nuclear plans, the pact suggests a new level of mutual confidence, which is likely to have an impact on the region in general, analysts say.

``This means that the acuteness of the nuclear issue has been blunted,'' says Bhabani Sen Gupta, an Indian political scientist with the Center for Policy Research. ``And it is a beginning, with a far-reaching potential for normalizing relations between the two countries.''

Analysts say that the new agreement may ultimately form part of a comprehensive bilateral peace treaty. It may open avenues for solving other issues like the border conflict or alleged terrorist movements in and out of India's Punjab State.

``For the most part, Gandhi has succeeded in reducing tensions in India and parts of the region,'' says a Western diplomat.

India also seems to be edging toward amicable resolutions of divisive issues with its smaller neighbors.

Gandhi recently said that India ``is prepared to hold meetings with both Nepal and Bangladesh.'' All three countries say they should share the benefits of the Himalayas water flow into the Ganges River.

Indo-Pakistan relations, the major flashpoint in southern Asia, have been marred by border clashes, three wars, and mutual suspicion since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Relations deteriorated in recent years, as both countries appeared intent on pursuing unsafeguarded nuclear development programs which do not preclude nuclear weapons capability.

Earlier this year, Gandhi stepped up accusations against Pakistan. Analysts now say that this was a carefully orchestrated campaign. It was timed for Gandhi's visit to the United States in June to discourage the US from renewing billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan without any Pakistani guarantees that it is not building nuclear bombs.

Despite the acrimonious atmosphere, Zia and Gandhi have sought every opportunity to meet.

Gandhi has moved away from politics of confrontation to politics of conciliation unlike his mother, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, analysts here say.

Both sides have agreed to accelerate the pace of ministerial meetings, starting next January, aimed at tackling outstanding issues. These meetings are likely to culminate in a visit by Gandhi to Pakistan before mid-1986. This would be the first state visit by an Indian head of government in 31 years.

Analysts from various parts of the region give Gandhi high marks for his willingness to take a long-term overview of regional problems as the basis for solutions.

``These are the same sets of problems that have existed for many years. But Rajiv does not appear to be distracted by narrow political interests as his mother seemed to be,'' says a Western diplomat. ``However, he has to make certain public statements for political expediency,'' adds the diplomat.

While Gandhi claims that India still plans to build a border fence -- to ward off illegal immigrants from Bangladesh -- many doubt whether he will actually go through with it because of the expense and the toll it would take from bilateral ties. Previous attempts to build the fence stirred clashes between Indian and Bangladeshi forces.

India has been instrumental in getting the Sri Lankan government and Tamil groups to resume peace talks in order to stave off an all-out military solution. Gandhi says that although the situation may be better now to some extent than it was earlier, ``more can be done'' to stem the violence.

Domestically, Gandhi has managed to inch forward in solving various ethnic and communal conflicts. He signed peace accords earlier this year in trouble spots, Punjab and Assam, and plans similar moves elsewhere.

Relatively peaceful elections were held earlier this week in the troubled northeast state of Assam. This is seen as another step, following Punjab's pattern, in bringing normality to India's disturbed areas.

[Police detained about 20,000 people Thursday and fired tear gas to break up demonstrators marching on the Indian Parliament in protest against a peace agreement in Punjab State, Reuters reports.]

His strategy seems to be to give the dominant local forces a chance to defuse local tension. ``He doesn't want to repeat his mother's mistakes in provoking confrontation all around,'' says Sen Gupta.

But in each case, Gandhi walks a tightrope between peace efforts and his own party's political interests. Despite victories by the dominant local parties, elections alone are not likely to automatically solve many of the internal disputes.

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