When Nikita S. Khrushchev and Nikolai A. Bulganin visited India in 1955, they were given such a rousing welcome that their security staff panicked.
As 2 million Indians cheered the Kremlin leaders in Calcutta, Soviet security men worried that the two men might be killed in the crush. So Khrushchev, then the Soviet Communist Party's first secretary, and Bulganin, the premier, were transferred from the open car in which they were riding to a prison van. A nervous Soviet official reportedly asked that Indian troops be called out, and, if necessary, ordered to open fire.
It was the biggest, noisiest greeting ever received by Soviet leaders outside their own country. "A feast of friendliness," Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called it.
The visit was also a watershed for the Soviet Union's relations with India and, in fact, with the rest of the developing world. In the three decades since, the Soviet Union and India have formed one of the strongest, if oddest, partnerships between nations.
That enduring relationship, so often lamented by Western leaders, will be highlighted again this week with the visit of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to New Delhi.
It will be Gorbachev's first official visit to a developing country since he became Communist Party general secretary in March, 1985. (Similarly, the Soviet Union was the first country visited by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi after his election in December, 1984).
For security reasons, largely prompted by the assassination of a Soviet diplomat here last year, Gorbachev's visit beginning Tuesday will be of much lower profile than the one made 31 years ago by Khrushchev and Bulganin or the 1973 and 1980 visits by Leonid I. Brezhnev.
Gorbachev is not expected to leave the capital. No mass rallies are scheduled. His most important speech is expected to be before a joint session of the Indian Parliament.
However, the Gorbachev visit comes at a time of shifting interests in the region.
Gorbachev's recent moves to normalize relations with China, outlined in a July 28 speech in Vladivostok, have some Indian officials worried. India fought a border war with China in 1962 and remains suspicious of Chinese intentions. Indo-Soviet relations have flourished during the 15-year split between China and the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, there is concern on the Soviet side about Indian dealings with the United States and other Western countries.
Main Arms Supplier
For more than 20 years, the Soviet Union has been the main supplier of weapons and military equipment to India. In some years more than 80% of all Indian military imports came from the Soviet Union.
In many instances--the delivery of new MIG jet fighters, for example--India's needs are given priority over the needs of Soviet Bloc countries in Eastern Europe. Not only does the Soviet Union sell weapons to India at very good rates, it also licenses the Indian government to manufacture its own equipment, including MIG-21 fighters for its air force.
So Soviet diplomats stirred recently as the Indian government under Rajiv Gandhi revealed increased interest in buying weapons and technological hardware from the West. This was emphasized in a recent visit to India by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, the highest-ranking American defense official ever to visit India.
"During the last few months, there has been some nervousness in some quarters in India about Sino-Soviet relations," said Ambady K. Damodaran, a member of Gandhi's policy advisory committee and an expert on the Soviet Union. "There has been corresponding nervousness, perhaps not so explicitly articulated, in the Soviet Union about India's improving relations with the United States."
At least part of the Gorbachev visit is expected to consist of a Soviet attempt to soothe the Indians about China and an Indian attempt to reassure the Soviets about new links with the United States.
Treaty Renewal Question
Gorbachev is expected to ask Gandhi about renewal of the 20-year Soviet-Indian treaty of friendship that was signed in 1971. Diplomatic sources said that when Gandhi visited the Soviet Union in May, 1985, Gorbachev asked him about the treaty and Gandhi refused to commit himself to an extension.
The Soviet leader may also broach the subject of an Asian-Pacific collective security system that was first proposed by Brezhnev in 1969 and resurrected in July by Gorbachev in his Vladivostok speech outlining a rapprochement with China.
However, Damodaran and other Indian officials and former officials who were interviewed warned against expecting any fundamental change in Indo-Soviet relations as the result of either development. The partnership between the two countries is too strong and too important to be disrupted, they said.
"When we say the Soviet Union is our friend," said Inder Gujral, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, "we are not making any hyperbolic statement. We are stating fact."
Backed India in 2 Wars
Proof of the Kremlin's support, Gujral said, was its backing of India in two wars against Pakistan, in 1965 and 1971, and over India's annexation of the former Portuguese colony of Goa in 1962.
A Soviet diplomat interviewed here noted that the friendship between the Soviet Union and India did not fade even between 1977 and 1980, when the pro-American Janata government was in power. If there was ever a time for strain between the two countries, he said, that was it.
But the relationship is not one-sided. In terms of establishing credibility in the Third World, the Soviet Union's friendship with India, the longtime leader of the Nonaligned Movement, has been very important.
At those times when the Soviet Union has faced international condemnation, beginning with its suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and continuing today with its troop presence in Afghanistan, India has offered only meek protest or remained silent. In contrast, the Indians were one of the most consistent and severe critics of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Before she was assassinated in 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Rajiv's mother, liked to say that "Indo-Soviet friendship is of equal importance to both India and the Soviet Union."
A Marriage of Opposites
In many ways, it is a marriage of opposites. India is the world's most populous democracy, a feverishly religious, fiercely hot place where enterprise abounds on every street corner and individuals are free to do just about anything they want, including walking naked down the middle of the street. The Soviet Union could not be more different, in temperature or tolerance or a host of other characteristics.
Yet the relationship has evolved into one of mutual dependency, involving such diverse links as toothpaste, oil and modern weapons, as well as supporting votes in the United Nations and Third World political organizations.
The Soviet Union maintains its largest diplomatic and trade mission in India. The Soviets have helped India in more than 80 major development projects, including the giant steel plants at Bhilai and Bokaro that still account for more than half of all the steel produced in India. Most of these projects, including dozens of power plants, coal mines and heavy equipment factories, have been financed over long terms at very low interest rates, usually 2.5%.
"Soviet contribution to our industrial development, particularly in core or critical sectors, has been great indeed," said Mantosh Sondhi, an Indian engineer and former official who worked with the Soviets on the Bhilai steel plant. "The degree of sophistication we have achieved would not have been possible without their help."
West's High Technology
At the same time, Sondhi and other Indian technocrats say that the need for the basic industrial development offered by the Soviets may be ending. Under Rajiv Gandhi, the goals have shifted to high-technology products offered by the West.
"Before," said Sondhi, former secretary of the Indo-Soviet Joint Commission, "our goal was self-reliance. Now the whole thrust has changed. They (the Soviets) won't say so, but I would think they must be apprehensive that we are looking at other sources."
"Soviet trade and aid relations with India are heading for a plateau because of changing Indian needs," Indian journalist Mohan Ram wrote recently in the Times of India. "The new policy aimed at modernizing industry through upgradation of technology limits the area of the relationship because obsolete Soviet technology is no answer to India's requirements."
A unique feature of the Indo-Soviet relationship is the rupee trade agreement between the two countries. Under the agreement, all Indian purchases of Soviet products or weapons are made in Indian rupees. This means that India never has to part with hard currency or foreign reserves to buy Soviet exports, including oil and weapons. In return, the Soviet Union uses its accumulated rupees to buy Indian products, including such consumer items as razor blades, toothpaste, cashew nuts and fruit juice. The Soviet Union is also the main buyer of Indian tea.
The advantages of this arrangement to India are obvious.
Soviet Consumer Market
"Where else can Indian consumer goods, including cosmetics, pharmaceutical preparations, garments, hosiery and footwear find a market without tariff or non-tariff barriers and without promotional or advertisement expenditure?" Ram asked rhetorically in his article.
In the Soviet Union, India has a captive and generally appreciative market for consumer items that would be judged inferior by most world standards. The Soviet Union buys one-fifth of India's total exports, and 83% of its cosmetic and detergent exports.
When oil prices were high, trade between the Soviet Union and India remained fairly balanced. But as oil prices dropped in recent years and India's own oil production increased, the balance has shifted dramatically in India's favor. This year, the Soviet trade deficit with India is expected to be about $700 million.
Soviet trade officials three years ago attempted to remedy this imbalance by creating the Indo-U.S.S.R. Chamber of Commerce. Previously, Soviet participation in the Indian economy was conducted mainly through state-owned Indian industry. The chamber of commerce plan was to enter joint agreements with profit-making enterprises in the Indian private sector to manufacture and market products based on Soviet plans.
So far, this unorthodox Soviet entry into the capitalist marketplace has not worked out, mainly because the Soviet side has insisted on 51% ownership. Another factor is the increase in foreign collaboration by Indian companies with technologically superior Western companies, particularly those from the United States and Japan.
Backs Congress Party
Politically, the Soviets face problems similar to those in trade between the two countries. Although India has two large and active Communist parties, most of the Soviet Union's support has been for the ruling Congress-I party.
India's constitution states that it is a socialist country. Until recently, the Soviet Union described India as "socialist-leaning." (For unexplained reasons, the designation was dropped this year).
However, at its heart, India remains one of the most inherently acquisitive, materialistic societies on earth. One of the main prayers in Hinduism, the principal religion of 80% of India's 790 million population, is for material wealth. Several Hindu gods are dedicated to bringing good business to their devotees. In India, the needs of the individual and his family will always come before the state's.
The Soviet justification for supporting such a system, often described in its literature as a "national bourgeois regime," is that an independent Indian economy works against imperialism.
"Industrial development by Indian capitalists," commented Santosh Mehrotra, an Indian expert on the Soviet Union, "is viewed as being contrary to the interests of imperialism, and also to the interests of landlords and princes. Hence the national bourgeoisie and its political representative, the Congress Party, are thought by the U.S.S.R. to be both anti-imperialist and anti-feudal."
Avoid Communist Channels
Soviet attempts to influence India, therefore, are not usually directed through Communist Party channels. Instead, the Soviets sponsor and support several dozen friendship societies such as the Friends of the Soviet Union, the All-India Peace and Solidarity Organization and the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society.
Through these organizations, the Soviet Union offers free trips to Moscow and subsidized trips to Eastern Europe. For impoverished Indian intellectuals, these trips are often the only way to afford an international experience.
Every day, Indian newspapers list meetings and seminars on Indo-Soviet themes. Recently in New Delhi, for example, the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society hosted a meeting "to hail Mr. Gorbachev's visit to India."
Still, despite these varied social and cultural connections as well as the vast Soviet contribution to the Indian industrial base, the Soviets have failed to win the heart or fire the imagination of the Indian people.
If anything, the cultural connections of the Indians with the West, particularly the United States, Britain and Canada, have increased in recent years by emigration to those countries. In the United States, there are now more than 400,000 people of Indian descent. Although many Indians study in the Soviet Union, few stay there.
"Don't worry about the contents of the speech," a senior Indian official told an American reporter as they both listened to a campaign speech in which Prime Minister Gandhi was critical of the United States. "Just remember that if you ask any Indian where he would rather live, the United States or India, he will always say the United States."
Commented former Ambassador Gujral: "The emotional tilt is in favor of America. The proclivity of the Indian mind is pro-American because of language, similar institutions and the many Indian people living in America. You will not come across a single Indian family living in the U.S.S.R."