This week, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev woos the young, Westward-looking leader of a trusted ally. Mr. Gorbachev's visit to New Delhi comes at a time when India is caught between economic forces that are pushing it toward the West and political tensions that are pulling it closer to the Soviet camp.
For almost 40 years, India has enjoyed the goodwill and largesse of the Soviet Union, which is India's largest arms supplier. Despite its official policy of ``nonalignment,'' India has seen Moscow as a trusted ally in times of crisis. And much of Indian industry has been built with Soviet aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
However, since taking power two years ago, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has been edging this nation of more than 750 million people on a Westward tilt. Mr. Gandhi's ambitious blueprint to ``take India into the 21st century'' calls for liberalizing the largely planned economy and importing Western technology. In recent years, the United States has surpassed the Soviet Union as India's main trading partner.
According to both Indian and Western analysts here, the Soviets harbor misgivings about these policies.
``There's a lot of nervousness among the Soviets about Gandhi. They see him as too Western oriented...,'' says a senior diplomat here. ``Rajiv will have to reassure them that, while he talks about good relations with America and economic liberalization, they can still count on him.''
Gorbachev's visit is widely seen here as a springboard for his plan, outlined in a major speech last summer, to broaden Soviet influence in Asia. Though Gorbachev has reportedly said India would play a key role in this plan, Indian officials are cold to the idea. They fear India would be relegated to secondary status behind the Soviets, China, and Japan. And, they dislike Soviet overtures to China, with which India fought a losing war in 1962.
Still, growing political strains in the region could forge new Indo-Soviet bonds, officials say. Recent pledges of US military aid to Pakistan and reports that Pakistanis close to developing a nuclear bomb cast the Gorbachev visit in a new light. Relations between India and Pakistan - which have fought three wars - have plummeted to new lows in recent months. India has charged Pakistan with meddling in internal ethnic crises and mishandling the Pan Am hijacking in September.
The latest shock came when US Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger revealed that the US may provide AWACS (airborne warning and control system) aircraft and other sophisticated weaponry to Pakistan. The introduction of AWACS in the region could scuttle Washington's fledgling political rapport with India and its plans to help develop defense industries here. Indian leaders distrust the US for its support of Pakistan.
More important, Indian officials say, the AWACs planes would alter the balance of power in South Asia, forcing India to buy a Soviet version of the surveillance aircraft and other sophisticated weapons.
``If Pakistan is brought into the American military orbit more closely,'' one Indian official says, ``then the security relationship between India and the Soviet Union could move to a higher level.''
To Moscow's delight, Gandhi has bitterly attacked the Reagan administration's nuclear weapons policies and praised Soviet arms proposals. India has also withheld harsh criticism of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
A cornerstone of the Gorbachev-Gandhi meeting will be a generous economic package aimed at shoring up the Soviet's longstanding economic ties with India. Trade has become lopsided in favor of Indian exports as India has increasingly sought Western technology. In a bid to double Indo-Soviet trade to $790 million by the next decade, Moscow is proposing cooperative ventures and expanded credit. Such new cooperation, analysts say, will give Gandhi leverage in dealing with the West.
Gorbachev's visit will be accompanied by a cultural blitz of Soviet ballet, music, and films. The Soviets maintain a high profile in the Indian capital, offering cultural events and language classes attended by hundreds of young Indians. Yet, Soviet influence on Indian society is limited, in part because of India's colonial past and ties to the English-speaking world.
Badal Mukherjee, a US-trained economist at Delhi University, says the Soviets do little to encourage awareness among Indians. The Soviets have repeatedly turned down requests from him and his colleagues to study and travel there. ``I don't think there is any genuine friendship here,'' he says. ``For most Indians, it's merely a political arrangement.''