Rao seeks equality with former colonial masters

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NARASIMHA RAO, the Indian Prime Minister who began his first official visit to Britain yesterday, is trying to build a new and equal partnership between India and its past colonial master. His heavily business-orientated visit aims to expand commercial links forged under 'Partnership Initiative', Britain's response to Mr Rao's economic liberalisation programme.

The success of Mr Rao's programme over the next few years will depend on how tempting India's potentially huge market is for multinational companies. Until Mr Rao's reforms, launched in 1992, India's socialist economy was virtually closed to outsiders. His liberalising was a virtual admission that the Soviet- influenced policies had failed to improve standards for India's starving millions.

But with the opening of its economy and the collapse of the Soviet Union, once its biggest trading partner, India is looking towards Britain to do business on an equal footing. Britain is now India's second largest foreign investor after the United States. In London yesterday, the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, and India's High Commissioner, L M Singhvi, signed a 10-year agreement protecting investments in the two countries against the threat of state take- overs. Many British companies are worried that if Mr Rao's government fell, his replacement might undo all of his reforms and nationalise foreign firms operating in India.

Mr Rao is anxious that any political fall-out over Kashmir does not endanger his attempts to drum up foreign investment. Fluent in half-a-dozen languages, he is also a master of silence. His stony, enigmatic expression earned him the nickname of 'Buddha' in New Delhi. Yet in his talks yesterday with John Major, Indian sources said he was positively garrulous in condemning Pakistan's role in the Kashmir conflict between the two Asian neighbours.

India wants Britain's help in convincing the Clinton administration to ease off on what New Delhi perceives to be a new anti-Indian stance in Washington over the Kashmir dispute, which has brought India and Pakistan to war twice. Tension between them is running high.

Both Britain and the US have criticised the harsh methods used by Indian security forces in trying to crush Muslim insurgents in Kashmir. India, which has refused to let the human rights organisation, Amnesty International, into Kashmir, claims the number of these abuses is exaggerated and blames Pakistan for fuelling 'terrorism' in this long Himalayan valley. Over 5,000 Kashmiris and Indian security forces have been killed in the three-year uprising, and dozens of Kashmiri youths have died in Indian custody.

Indian sources said Mr Rao told Mr Major of his readiness to resume 'dialogue' with Pakistan. This seemed good news; Britain has always said Pakistan and India should resume negotiations over Kashmir. But all Mr Rao was prepared to discuss was Pakistan's alleged support of the Kashmiri militants. The key issues of Pakistan's conflicting claim to Kashmir and the wishes of the Kashmiri people for autonomy were brushed aside.