Ever since the five-fold boost in oil prices in 1973 created massive new burdens for the world's poor nations, there has been a growing sense of confrontation between the haves and the have-nots. Sometimes it is expressed in terms of the North versus the South. More often, the reference is to the Third World - a composite of the poor nations as against the Capitalist and Communist worlds.
But here in the biggest and most diverse of the Third World countries, there is a disenchantment with confrontation - which has produced few results - and a desire for what a high official calls "bridge-building."
"The Third World idea means that it's us against everybody else, a 'haves' and 'have-nots' mentally forever," this official said to me. Recently, at the United Nations in New York, Minister of External Affairs Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried to put forward the concept that one world is better than three. The inspiration, of course, comes directly from Prime Minister Morarji Desai.
At first blush, it seems like pie in the sky. But in the short space of a year since I was last here, there has been a marked improvement in economic growth and well-being.
I hasten to say that India is still one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita income of less than $150 a year. But it is making great strides in agriculture and industry, and the anomaly of it all is that India has the world's tenth largest gross national product.
WHAT I SENSE after talks with officials in the Foreign Ministry here, and with the thoughtful chief minister of Gujarat state, B. J. Patel, in Gandhinagar, is that India feels it has a foot in both camps. It may pay lip service to the more strident demands of the Group of 77 - spokesman for the poor - but it has come to understand that head-to-head confrontation is useless.
"When we talk about cooperation and not confrontation, we talk about" cooperation among developing countries "and the growth of a new kind of economic relationship with the rich, not just the supply of raw materials for the rich nations' factories," a national government official told me.
For their part, if the rich nations wish to avoid confrontation, they will have to abandon the selfish notion of total protection of their less efficient industries, and give advanced developing nations such as India a chance to penetrate the North's markets with manufactured goods.
"No lasting solution to the malaise afflicting the world economy can be found until a concerted effort is made to provide adequate purchasing power to two-thirds of the world population," Vajpayee told the United Nations.
It also will require more sophisticated ways of transfering technology to those developing countries that now are ready and able to use it.
A special strategy, deriving from India's enormous natural resources, is collaboration with major countries to develop the poorest of the poor countries. India and Japan, for example, just have concluded an agreement for joint ventures in third countries.
WHAT IT ALL amounts to, it seems to me, is that with the advent of OPEC, there was initially a feeling that the negotiating advantage had moved to the side of the South. But OPEC - and its oil - was a special case. Similar leverage could not be created for other products.
And, in fact, OPEC's failure to provide a price break in oil hurt the developing nations. In a single year, for example, the oil price increase cost India $1 billion.
Now, over the past five years, there has been significant economic recovery in the Third World - with considerable help from international organizations and individual nations.
A small group of advanced developing countries - India, Korea and Brazil among them - are getting much stronger and better able to help themselves.
None of this changes the fact that there still exists a horribly deprived group of the poorest of poor countries. Or that here in India, half of 630 million people barely survive below a desperately minimal poverty line.
The notable change is that the Third World has in total growth in strength sufficiently that its continued success is crucial to the prosperity of the rich world - more so than ever before. And that makes collaboration rather than confrontation not merely an option but the only sensible choice.