SOVIET leader Mikhail Gorbachev's low-key visit to India last week was not a breakthrough in terms of policy changes. The Soviets did promise stepped-up trade with New Delhi. India supported a Soviet call for nuclear disarmament. But of even greater importance than commercial contracts, or arms talks, was the implicit Soviet recognition of India's continuing, if not growing, importance in South Asia, as well as on the global scene.
Not that India has not always been a major regional power. With a population of about 800 million, it must be considered one of the world's truly important nations. But what is now slightly different regarding India's links to the rest of the world is the ``Rajiv factor'' - the presence of a somewhat more Western-oriented prime minister who in addition to attempting to modernize his economy is also seeking to bring an end to regional conflicts on the Indian subcontinent.
For all his good press abroad, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has yet to accomplish his twin goals of economic liberalization and an easing of regional tensions. Some economic modernization has begun, but at a glacial pace. Peace accords that were negotiated to end separatist strife in Punjab, Assam, and Mizoram States have either collapsed or bogged down in political infighting. Efforts to help resolve a dispute between the government of Sri Lanka and Tamil rebels have floundered.
Finally, ties with Pakistan remain strained, largely because of Indian concerns that Pakistan is moving ahead with a nuclear bomb and is aiding Sikh terrorists.
Only in one major regard can India's overall policy be said to have been much changed. And that is regarding India's commercial and foreign policy ties with the United States. They are now much better than was the case under Rajiv's mother, Indira Gandhi.
But that point has not been lost on the Soviets. For his part, Mr. Gandhi handled the affable and charming Mr. Gorbachev well this past week. While praising Gorbachev as a ``crusader for peace,'' Gandhi refrained from joining the Soviet leader's much-touted call for a new all-Asia security forum, patterned along the lines of the Helsinki conference in 1975.
Still, Gandhi must have looked forward to Gorbachev's visit, coming as it did against a backdrop of mounting criticism directed against the prime minister. In this sense, Moscow may have gained a little extra from the visit.