Surprises on Gorbachev's India trip. Soviet leader concentrates on nation rather than region

Although both Soviet and Indian officials are expressing great satisfaction with Mikhail Gorbachev's four-day stay in New Delhi, the visit lacked the expected regional dimension. There was no new initiative on Afghanistan. Instead, sounding a little like President Reagan, the Soviet leader hinted that something was under way on Afghanistan that could be undermined by premature publicity.

This lack of new proposals on south Asia and the Middle East came as a surprise to some Indian and Soviet officials, as well as foreign observers.

The explanation for the unexpected emphasis on India may lie in a comment made by Gorbachev at the press conference that he and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi gave shortly before the Soviet leader left for home. Referring to the warmth of Indo-Soviet relations, Gorbachev noted pointedly that the relationship was especially important because of the two countries' differences in social systems, history, and traditions.

India, in other words, was proof that a nonsocialist country could find a close relationship with the Soviet Union both feasible and beneficial. Faced with a growing deterioration in relations with the United States - underlined by reports during Gorbachev's visit that the US was planning to break the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), which it did Friday - the Soviets may have decided to limit their aims to the consolidation of bilateral relations with one of the most important countries of the developing world. They may also have decided to avoid new ambitious initiatives: The Soviet proposals made so far, whether on nuclear disarmament or relations with countries like China, have not produced tangible results.

Though this may have been the plan all along, there are some indications of a last-minute change in emphasis. Gorbachev took to India many of the advisers who accompanied him to the Reykjavik, Iceland, superpower summit in October. Evgeny Primakov and Nikolai Shishlin, the officials who led discussions in Iceland with the US on regional problems like Afghanistan and the Middle East, went with him. So did Anatoly Dobrynin, one of the top foreign policy specialists, arms control adviser Valentin Falin, and US specialist Georgy Arbatov.

Blitz, a strongly pro-Soviet weekly, also referred to the presence of Gorbachev's ``special adviser on Afghanistan,'' identified only as Gankovsky. This, the paper said, was a clear sign that Afghanistan would figure prominently on the agenda.

In Reykjavik, such specialists had a dual function: to conduct talks with US officials and to put over the Soviet viewpoint to the world press. In India, an informed source says, they were ``under-utilized'' in both respects.

The whole Soviet publicity operation was unusually low key. Advance men had, as usual, gone to great pains to set up a large Soviet news media center in one of Delhi's main hotels. The center, however, was largely unused. Only the Indian side offered briefings at the end of each day's talks between the two leaders. One plausible explanation for the change in style is that the Soviets decided to defer to their hosts. Briefings by sides could imply a lack of unanimity between the two leaders, and this was something the Soviets were eager to avoid.

Gorbachev's speech to Parliament was another surprise. It was uncharacteristically brief - 30 minutes, under half his usual length. At no point did he extemporize, as he routinely does. His interpreters seemed unusually confident that he would not do so: On at least one occasion an interpreter, obviously working from a written text, got slightly ahead of Gorbachev.

Though more modest than expected in scope, the visit was clearly a success for both leaders. Gandhi secured Moscow's agreement to a substantial increase in trade, while talks between Soviet Deputy Defense Minister Sergei Akhromeyev and his Indian counterpart may mean that further Soviet military aid is on the way.

The benefits for Gorbachev were also substantial. A major nonaligned country has added its name to Moscow's call for nuclear disarmament. And the Soviet propaganda machinery is likely fully to exploit the fact that although the US broke SALT II, Moscow and New Delhi are calling for an end to nuclear arms.

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