The U.S. promise to sell top-of-the-line F16 fighters to Pakistan dominted the first week of Parliament's current session, with both government and opposition leaders supporting Prime Minister Indria Gandhi's contention that the planes threaten India's security.
This rare display of unanimity within the usually fractious Parliament illustrates the widespread public apprehension in India that the sale of U.S. arms to Pakistan could lead to another war between the neighboring nations within a year. During a recent visit to Pakistan, however, there was no talk of war.
Both Western and Third World diplomats here said the Indian fears appear to have been fanned over the past two months by statements from Gandhi and top officials.
Minister of State for Defense Shivraj Patil told Parliament that shooting incidents have increased this month between Indian and Pakistani troops facing each other in Kashmir -- site of two of the three wars fought since the countries won independence from Britain in 1947.
As a result of the legislature's concentration on U.S. arms sales to Pakistan, scant attention was paid to major domestic issues, including price rises, an antistrike ordinance promulgated by presidential decree less than three weeks before Parliament was to convene and purchases of American wheat despite reports of a record harvest.
It appears likely from Gandhi's statements to Parliament that India will use the U.S. arms sales to Pakistan as justification to embark on major new weapons purchases.
India Today, an authoritative news magazine published here, said the Gandhi government is negotiating with Moscow for the purchase of MI24 helicopter gunships, the most feared weapon the Soviets have used against rebels in Afghanistan.
Last year India signed a $1.6 billion arms agreement with the Soviets that included such concessionary terms that the State Department has estimated their real worth at $5.5 billion.
India is also expected to conclude an agreement to buy Mirage 2000 jets from France. Negotiations are expected to be completed during French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson's visit here next week, but the deal is not likely to be announced until Gandhi visits Paris in November, said G. K. Reddy, Dlhi correspondent of the Hindu, who has close ties to the Gandhi government.
New Delhi's initial rection to the widely expected June announcement of the U.S. arms sale to Pakistan was muted. But in July Gandhi accused the United States of sparking an arms race in South Asia by introducing a new level of military technology to the region.
The Indians then complained that Pakistani Foreign Minister Agha Shahi failed to inform India about the F16s during Foreign Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's visit to Islamabad. Pakistan denies this, saying India knew full well.
Rao was attacked in Parliament for signing a joint statement with Shahi affirming each nation's right to purchase arms it needs for its own defense. Gandhi explained this meant legitimate needs and said purchase of F16s exceeds the limit.
The Defense Ministry -- which Gandhi heads -- briefed Indian journalists on the offensive capabilities of the F16s and alleged that the planes would give Pakistan a military advantage over India.
Western military attaches here and in Islamabad dispute that view. One said India's Air Force is so superior that even if Pakistan attacked India with F16s the retaliation would be so swift that the American-made jets would have no air field to return to.
The Press Trust of India, in a report last month widely printed by major newspapers here, cited Defense Ministry sources as saying Pakistan had begun "a massive military buildup along the Indian border."
This was denied by Pakistan in an official protest. Indian defense officials acknowledged they were embarrassed by the report, which they blamed on the reporter.
New Delhi protested stories appearing in the Pakistani press as anti-India, especially a London-datelined report quoting informed sources saying that India and Israel were planning to attack Pakistan's nuclear installations.