DEPUTY Secretary of State Strobe Talbott's meetings in New Delhi today offer an opportunity for the Clinton administration to rectify some blunders in Indo-US relations. Perhaps the greatest need is simply to reassure Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao that the United States certainly takes India seriously and sees it as a crucial partner.
Indian diplomats and a broad segment of the Indian population have begun to wonder, with some anxiety, if this is true. There has been no clear US foreign policy on the subcontinent. Not only has there been no US ambassador to the world's largest democracy for a year (nominee Frank Wisner is not yet confirmed), there was no state visit until March, when Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphael visited, partly to smooth over statements on Kashmir, a dispute that could spark an Indo-Pakistani war.
Ms. Raphael last fall casually said US policy on Kashmir was open, a questioning of India's sovereignty. The administration has also sought to suspend the Pressler Amendment - a sanction on Pakistan for its nuclear- weapons program - and allow the sale of F-16s to the Bhutto government. There have been White House letters to US members of Congress questioning India's treatment of Sikhs; while such sentiments may be correct, Indian diplomats were baffled that they were not at least informed.
Mr. Talbott's trip, a prelude to Mr. Rao's visit to Washington May 6, will be demanding. Pakistan and F-16 sales, human rights in Kashmir, India's nuclear program, are issues that require a mutual understanding that has not yet been established. India itself, in the post-cold-war era, has shown considerable ethnic instability. One abhors the treatment of Muslims in Kashmir; but the answer is pressure on India, not questioning borders. Kashmir could trigger several mini-Bosnia's in India.
There seems little logic or art in the sale of F-16s to Pakistan. That such a sale offers US leverage over the Pakistani nuclear program is wishful; it also tears at Indo-US relations.
It should be clear in New Delhi after Talbott's trip that US foreign policy is now an extension of US economic policy, and that the US wants an Indian market. What Talbott might find is that the mix of ethnicity, borders, nuclear weapons, and public opinion on the subcontinent requires more US diplomacy than found so far.