THE death of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has cast a cloud over attempts in Washington to curb nuclear proliferation on the subcontinent, with a vision toward a South Asia Nuclear-Free Zone. With Gandhi's assassination, "what was a complicated situation is made worse, given that the Indian nation is internally torn on the nuclear issue," says a senior Bush administration official.
"Gandhi was clearly the leading candidate" in this week's national elections, he says, adding that he hoped that a Gandhi victory would steer the country away from an orthodox pro-nuclear stand and toward a more accommodating approach.
"Gandhi didn't favor nuclear weapons, but wouldn't give up the nuclear option until nonproliferation was dealt with on an international level.
Many of his opponents, including political parties, military officers, and members of India's think tanks, are nuclear hawks who think that to be a great power, India has to be a nuclear power," the official says.
Bush administration officials concede the United States has no leverage over India on the issue; as a result, Washington's efforts continue to focus on Pakistan.
Because Pakistan has been developing nuclear weapons, the US has suspended aid to that country.
The Pressler Amendment, which passed with the 1985 foreign-aid bill, stipulates that if Pakistan has a nuclear device, or the components for one, it is ineligible for US aid. Until 1990, the country was the third-largest recipient of overall US foreign assistance. Pakistan has lost more than $300 million in 1991 US economic and military aid as well as agricultural credits. The country received more than $600 million in 1990.
US Rep. Stephen Solarz (D) of New York says that from 1985 to 1990 the US-Pakistani relationship "flourished.... Pakistan received more US assistance that any country ... except for Israel and Egypt, and the [US and Pakistan] worked closely together to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
"Unfortunately, Pakistan persisted with its clandestine nuclear program."
Congress is considering legislation that would hold India, which receives US humanitarian assistance, to the same standard as Pakistan.
Mr. Solarz, a strong supporter of the amendment as it applies to Pakistan, bitterly opposes the effort to hold India to the same criteria for aid.
To do so, he says, is to dilute nonproliferation efforts toward Pakistan.
A Washington-based lobbyist for South Asia affairs says the Pressler Amendment "is a discriminatory policy which obviously failed.
"It leaves India free to continue its unchecked, unsafeguarded nuclear program with no restrictions and no accountability. This isn't a serious nonproliferation policy for South Asia."
"We're in a legal straitjacket," says the senior administration official, referring to the Pressler Amendment. The White House tried to remove that straitjacket by deleting the amendment from the foreign-aid package delivered to Capitol Hill this spring.
"While the president wants greater flexibility" over foreign aid, "Congress doesn't want to let go of the only grasp it has on foreign policy - approving appropriations through the foreign-aid bill," says Shireen Hunter, deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Pakistan's Minister for Finance and Economic Affairs Sartaj Aziz says slashed US aid could stunt the country's economic development.
He says Pakistan suffered a $1 billion loss from the Gulf war - because of higher oil prices, lower remittances from Pakistani workers in the Gulf, and lost trade with Iraq and Kuwait. "We have launched long-term economic reforms in the past four months which are fragile."
An aid cut not only jeopardizes these reforms, he says, it debilitates the Pakistani military. Pakistan spends about 40 percent of its budget on defense. During the Gulf war, Pakistan sent 11,000 troops to Saudi Arabia. Today, the government stresses Pakistan's non-Arab, 114 million Islamic population with stated hopes to take part in any Gulf security arrangements.
But Dr. Hunter says Pakistan's troops were not sent in solidarity with the allied coalition against Iraq but as protectors of Islamic holy places - Mecca and Medina. Hunter discounts Pakistan's potential role in Persian Gulf security.
When Washington was worried about Soviet expansionism beyond its occupation of Pakistan's neighbor, Afghanistan, all other regional issues were subordinated, including Pakistan's nuclear development, says Hunter.
"Congress is now ready to clamp down" on the nuclear issue, she says.