SLOWLY and deliberately, like an ocean liner attempting to make sharp turn, Indian officials are strengthening their own relations with the United States. The feeling in Washington seems to be mutual.
"It's an oversimplification for anyone to assert that we are new friends," says I. K. Gujral, a former foreign minister. But he adds that the "cold-war prism that distorted the Indian image in American eyes ... has been removed."
Conversely, says Bhabani Sen Gupta of New Delhi's Center for Policy Research, the old, familiar rhetoric used here to describe the US - habitually seen as the "defender of the imperialist tradition has all but disappeared. But Mr. Gupta and other observers say the tone of the diplomacy remains crucial - if the US pushes India too hard on key areas of difference like nuclear nonproliferation and trade policy, the new warmth may be jeopardized.
There are several signs of vigor in the Indo-US relationship.
* The US envoy to the United Nations, Thomas Pickering, has been named ambassador to India. A Foreign Ministry spokesman calls the appointment "a sign of the increasing importance the US attaches to their evolving and developing ties with India."
* Last December India joined a US-backed effort to repeal the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism and last month set up diplomatic ties with Israel. These decisions were made within the "general context" of Indo-US relations, according to another senior Foreign Ministry official.
* The US, in the absence of the cold war alignments, has toughened its stand toward Pakistan. Congress cut off US aid to Pakistan in October 1990 over concerns about Islamabad's ability to produce nuclear weapons.
Perhaps most important is that Indian officials and politicians appear to be treating the US with less suspicion. And Indians say the US now acknowledges New Delhi's leadership in the region.
The US is trying to bring India and Pakistan together, along with Russia and China, to promote nuclear nonproliferation in South Asia through a so-called five-power pact. India, which exploded a nuclear device in 1974, has always refused to participate in any regional nonproliferation efforts or sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, holding out for global nuclear disarmament.
But Foreign Secretary J. N. Dixit is going to Washington next month for talks, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Aftab Seth says the nuclear issue will be part of the agenda. A senior Western diplomat here says that a "few years ago [American] motives [on the nuclear question] would have been questioned. Now people are accepting on face value what [US officials] are trying to do."
India has long seen itself as the regional power house, and wanted others to recognize its role. Since the mid-1980s, says Gupta of the Centre for Policy Research, the US has been increasingly willing to do so.
In 1987, for instance, Washington did not object to India's military intervention in Sri Lanka, Gupta says. High-level military contacts over the past six months, aimed at promoting communication and joint training between US and Indian forces, have underscored the "impression ... that the US has finally conceded that India is the leading power in South Asia," he says.
Gupta, a longtime advocate of Indo-Soviet ties, says of the current climate: "The search is not for a defense relationship but for a strategic understanding." The substance of the relationship is still "very, very thin," in that there is no large-scale economic assistance of India or sales of military hardware. The future of the relationship depends on where, and whether, Indo-US strategic interests converge.
Subramaniam Swamy, a leading opposition member of Parliament, says the possibilities for broader economic cooperation ought to be mutually appealing. He posits "an ideal combination" of "US technology and the cheap skilled labor of India."
Although disputes over India's trade policies persist, New Delhi is engaged in a broad program of economic restructuring that includes compliance with international lending institutions and the encouragement of foreign investment. In the last eight months several US corporations have agreed to pump $150 million into Indian ventures, a sum double total foreign investment the previous year.
Mr. Swamy also asserts that Indian, US, and even Israeli interests converge over concerns about Islamic fundamentalism. There is some public sensitivity about an emerging Muslim bloc - one Hindi daily, Dainik Jagran, editorialized in January about "the threat of a new configuration of Islamic nations looming large over the country but policymakers and analysts seem less worried than the politicians. And Foreign Ministry officials disparage the possibility of a US-Indian-Israeli alliance.
There are some obvious areas of disagreement between the US and India but there is more profound concern here about the tone the US uses in addressing these issues. US Embassy officials, in an indication of Indian sensitivity, refuse to discuss Indo-US relations publicly.
Bharat Wariavwalla, a senior associate at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, is more wary than other analysts of the accelerated ties, saying that the Soviet decline has forced India to find a superpower friend in Washington. He says the success of the new ties "depends on how the US handles the relationship."
If India is encouraged to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, "then [the relationship] is a hopeless proposition," Mr. Wariavwalla asserts, because opposition parties can always resort to a "jingoistic nationalist platform" if the government moves too fast toward the US line.
Mr. Seth, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, says, "No government can stay in power [in India] if they give even the slightest hint of bending" to US will, particularly on the nuclear issue. "Please don't push us," he adds.
Washington last week decided not to pursue sanctions against India for insufficiently protecting US intellectual property rights, particularly in making pharmaceuticals, but officials are continuing to monitor Indian trade practices. The issue is a sore point in many developing countries, where critics say that the demanded protections would make it impossible to produce drugs inexpensively. Seth says US pronouncements on the subject complicate the issue.
"We are with you on the need for economic reform," he says. "We want to globalize our own economy. But for heaven's sake allow us to do it at a pace which allows the government to stay in power."