WHEN diplomat Robin Raphel arrived here from Washington last month, she was met at the airport by mobs of reporters and photographers. She made the front pages the following day. One newspaper dubbed her ``the unwanted guest.''
Ms. Raphel holds what is normally a low-key position at the US State Department: assistant secretary for South Asian Affairs. But she is now universally known in India - and widely reviled. In October and again in February she made statements on Kashmir that enraged Indians and helped ratchet relations between America and India to new lows.
If United States relations with such East Asian nations as Japan, China, and North Korea look troubled, the situation on the subcontinent is not much better. Various circumstances have contributed to this situation:
r Raphel's diplomatic gaffes have created a storm of anti-American press in India.
r There has been no US ambassador in New Delhi for more than a year (because of confirmation problems with the original nominee, Steven Solarz). The new nominee, Frank Wisner, is likely to be confirmed shortly.
r Last week, the US said India could be hit with trade sanctions under the Special 301 trade legislation. The main issue of contention is the lack of intellectual property rights and patent protection for US products in India.
r At the same time, the US has launched a delicate initiative to halt nuclear weapons proliferation on the subcontinent, which requires the support of both India and Pakistan.
Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott arrives in New Delhi April 6 to further the initiative. But he is unlikely to make much headway in India, where the climate is decidedly cool.
Intricate regional enmities
To be sure, any such initiative would be difficult in a region with such intricate and reciprocal enmities. India and Pakistan have gone to war three times since their independence in 1947, twice over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Indo-US relations unraveled when the US supported Pakistan in the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh.
India subsequently became a political and military partner of the former Soviet Union and, in the late 1970s, expelled major US corporations and foundations. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the US became the chief patron of Pakistan and injected billions of dollars of direct aid, despite evidence that the Pakistani military was developing a nuclear arsenal. Aid was cut off in 1990, only after the Soviets had left Afghanistan.
Pakistan is now thought to have several weapons ready for assembly; India, which exploded a nuclear device in 1974, has more. The bombs are meant for each other. Relations between the countries are still poisoned by Kashmir. For five years, Indian troops have been trying to quell a militant separatist movement in the region, which is popularly supported and aided by Pakistan. Tension over Kashmir nearly brought the two countries to war in 1990 and, Western analysts say, could easily do so again.
The current US effort is to get Pakistan to cease production of all fissile material, which would ``cap'' their nuclear capability, and open their facilities to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The Pakistani Army chief, Gen. Abdul Waheed Kakar, met Mr. Talbott in Washington last week to discuss the plan. As a reward, the US is asking Congress to allow the delivery of 38 Lockheed F-16s to Pakistan, which had been blocked because of the nuclear program.
In New Delhi, Talbott is expected to discuss limits on Indian capability, including India's ongoing efforts to develop intercontinental missiles.
But India has refused to negotiate a nuclear deal with Pakistan in the past, saying it has two nuclear enemies to fear: Pakistan and China. It is cynical about the US's offer to Pakistan, seeing it as a justification for selling American fighter planes - which would be used against India, possibly fitted with nuclear bombs.
The rancorous reactions to Raphel's statements are unlikely to help the initiative.
In a press briefing in October, she told reporters the US did not recognize the document that legally made Kashmir a part of India. The briefing was supposed to be off the record but Indian reporters splashed her comments across the front pages.
Then she made a February speech before the Asia Society in Washington that repeatedly compared Kashmir with Afghanistan. The Indian press and political analysts assumed the US was trying to get involved in the Kashmir impasse - which produced a vociferous, negative public reaction.
Raphel's trip to India last month was an effort in damage control, and it helped simmer down both journalists and pundits. But many Indians remain distrustful of US efforts as a result.
Ironically, the relationship between the two is probably more substantive than ever.
Since the end of the cold war, the Indian military has held joint exercises with the US. Successive Indian governments no longer rely on Moscow to decide how to vote in the United Nations. And the country's economic liberalizations, after many fits and starts, have caught the attention of US investors.
US investments in India prior to 1993 were ``petty cash,'' in the words of one diplomat. In the year ended March 31, 1994, India approved $1 billion in US investments.
``The business relationship is outstanding,'' says Charles Mast, US consul-general in Bombay, the commercial capital of the country. ``People are quite willing to invest their money. They're excited about the changes going on.''