Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to Washington this week symbolized a substantial change in United States-India relations. Twenty years ago, development and food aid were major bilateral issues. Today, India runs a $1 billion surplus in $4 billion of yearly trade with the US. Long reliant on the Soviet Union for arms, India and the US are now embarking on modest defense cooperation.
Any defense cooperation would have been unthinkable even five years ago, says a US specialist on South Asia. Indeed, there is much more depth and content to Indo-US relations today than in the past, he adds.
The broadening relationship is reflected in the list of cooperative measures agreed to during the visit - including scientific projects in advanced research, final sale of a Cray supercomputer, possible US participation in India's development of a light combat aircraft, educational grants, and narcotics control efforts.
India is deepening ties with many Western countries as it seeks the technology to develop further, says a US official. ``The Soviets just don't have it,'' he says.
The change represents an opening of India's economy to the world since 1985, Mr. Gandhi says. This opening, he says, has produced 5 percent annual growth for India and has made the US India's largest trading partner.
But differences remain. A leader of the ``nonaligned movement,'' India often differs with the US on world issues. It also relies heavily on Soviet military aid.
The most difficult problem between the two countries revolves around the India's long rivalry with Pakistan and the nuclear potential of both countries.
India does not approve of sizable US military aid to Pakistan, the neighbor with which it has fought three wars. More deeply, it fears Pakistan's nuclear program. India believes that Pakistan intends to build a nuclear weapon, Gandhi says. A Western leader told him last week, he says, that Pakistan apparently ``already has a workable [nuclear] device.''
US aid allows Pakistan to funnel more money into its nuclear program, he says, and an aid cutoff would force Pakistan to slow its program. US official specialists disagree and say a US aid cutoff would increase Pakistan's fears of India, which exploded a nuclear device in 1974, and could push its program forward rapidly.
India does not want to go nuclear and would ``like to do anything to prevent ourselves going nuclear,'' Gandhi says. But US officials say this explanation is misleading. According to them, Pakistan has offered ideas for mutual confidence building in the nuclear area, but India has not accepted.
A senior US official said, after Gandhi's meeting with President Reagan, that the US believes that the solution to the nuclear problem in South Asia has to be in a regional context. But India, he said, continues to resist bilateral solutions with Pakistan because of its fears of China's nuclear weapons.
Gandhi makes the severity of the India-Pakistan problem clear. After listing 20-odd failed Indian initiatives toward Pakistan, Gandhi says, ``We're stuck. ... They just don't talk, and then if they talk, they just don't move.'' Pakistani officials make similar charges.
US officials say there were no breakthroughs on the nuclear question during Gandhi's meetings, but there was a slight advance.
The senior administration official pointed to a shared perception ``that perhaps, in the context of improved East-West relations, where nuclear reductions are in prospect, there may be opportunities.''