India has been one of the few enduring success stories of Soviet foreign policy. The world's second-most-populous country, it is Moscow's window on the nonaligned world - a group of countries that the Soviets consider highly important and one which sees itself as neglected by the United States. It is a major trading partner and a good military friend. The majority of India's weaponry comes from the Soviets, and India manufactures Soviet tanks and jet fighters under license.
``India,'' said one Soviet foreign affairs specialist, ``is one of the cornerstones of our foreign policy.'' And, at a time when Moscow once again feels the threat of a geographical encirclement by nations friendly to the US, India is a gap in the arc.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will be trying to reinforce all these aspects of the relationship during his four-day visit to New Delhi (Nov. 25-28). During the trip, he is also expected to make a major statement of his country's policy toward South Asia and the Middle East - a sign of his more activist, multipolar approach to foreign policy. And the visit will probably be a buildup for several other ambitious foreign visits that the Soviet leader is expected to make over the next year, and which will probably take him to Italy, Mexico, and Japan.
With the glaring exception of the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Moscow has shown an unusually deft touch in the South Asian subcontinent. Mr. Gorbachev is expected to make new proposals on a settlement to the conflict during his visit, as reported in the Monitor Nov. 20. During a two-hour interview with Indian television aired Sunday evening, Gorbachev said the ``day was not far off'' for a political settlement of the Afghan crisis. ``We have no intention of staying there forever.''
Soviet mediation of the 1965 India-Pakistan war gave the Soviets a rare opportunity to show their peacemaking skills - a role that Moscow would like to repeat in the Middle East. The Soviets backed the winner in the next Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, signing a friendship treaty with India just before it broke out, while the US tilted toward Pakistan.
Fears in Moscow that Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi would prove more favorably inclined to the US have not been fulfilled. Pakistan's nuclear ambitions and India's ethnic conflict in Punjab seem to have slowed any thaw in Indo-US relations. Indian concern that Pakistan is building a nuclear bomb is coupled with irritation at the high level of US military aid to the government of Pakistan's President, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Pakistan's alleged aid to Sikh separatists, and Indian anger that Sikh organizations are allowed to operate in the US, further strain the relationship. Soviet sources say they expect that during his visit Gorbachev will express unequivocal support for Mr. Gandhi on the Punjab issue.
Meanwhile, the Soviets have gained considerable goodwill in the nonaligned world with their moratorium on nuclear tests. Moscow has been at pains to emphasize that its decision to extend the nuclear-test ban was based partly on an appeal from the group of neutral and nonaligned nations known as the New Delhi six: India, Mexico, Sweden, Tanzania, Argentina, and Greece. India has in turn been a strong supporter of Gorbachev's efforts at nuclear disarmament.
Trade, already an important aspect of Soviet-Indian relations, will probably become more important in the next few years. In 1985, according to official Soviet figures, trade between the two countries was worth more than 3.072 billion rubles ($4.48 billion) - more than 300 million rubles ($438 million) higher than Soviet-US trade, and only slightly less than Moscow's trade with Japan.
Indian officials say trade will grow by about 5.5 percent next year. The bulk of Soviet exports to India take the form of oil and oil products. The Soviets import a variety of Indian products, including textiles, jute, leather, coffee, handicrafts, and spices. Soviet officials say they hope to diversify and broaden their trade relations. During the next 10 to 15 years, the Soviet Union plans modernize its whole industrial infrastructure.
In the long run, Gorbachev's dream is that Soviet industry will be as sophisticated and efficient as that of Japan or the West. In the meantime, however, Moscow will need large and relatively unsophisticated markets for its products. India and China come closest to fitting this bill.
Though various agreements will be signed during the visit, the intangible aspects of the trip will be just as important, if not more so. Gorbachev will be eager to demonstrate the Soviet Union's continuing closeness to one of the leaders of the nonaligned movement. And, by doing so, the Soviets probably hope that the message will slowly get across to other third-world countries that Moscow is willing and able to have long and close relations with non-socialist countries.