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NEW DELHI — U.S. President Bill Clinton arrives in India on Sunday, the region that he recently termed the most dangerous place on Earth. There may be an element of truth in that.

During the past 50 years, India and Pakistan have waged three full-scale wars, and been party to a high-casualty flareup at the Himalayan border area of Kargil in Kashmir last year. Besides, their armies have led an eyeball-to-eyeball existence that ever so often resulted in minor clashes.

With the two countries having gone nuclear, and with Islamabad aiding, abetting and training terrorists to create havoc in Kashmir — whose union with India has been a terrible bone of contention between the two neighbors — the American president’s concern may not be misplaced.

But if he is tempted to mediate between the to warring nations, now that he has decided to stop over in Islamabad, the exercise is bound to be futile. No effective arbitration is possible unless a civilian administration replaces the military rule in Pakistan.

Till then, Islamic fundamentalists will have the final say, more so because Gen. Pervez Musharraf is reputedly a mere front for two powerful men, Lt. Gen. Mohammed Aziz, the chief of general staff, and Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed, the security and intelligence director, whose long-standing links with the extremists are well known.

However, Clinton’s trip is to be viewed in a wider context whose ramifications stretch beyond the Indo-Pakistan animosity. The visit signals a change in the U.S. foreign policy in the subcontinent. The president and the policymakers in Washington are not just keen to end outdated Cold War suspicions, but are in no mood to miss out on the Indian market, whose prospects are brightening with recent economic liberalization.

Clinton’s decision to visit Hyderabad, capital of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh — whose chief minister is not just techno savvy, but a shrewd businessman as well — is a strong pointer to America’s trade concerns.

New Delhi is well aware of this. Before, it sought to wield influence through its close association with the erstwhile Soviet Union and the Nonaligned Movement. Today, it hopes to gain respectability in the international arena through money power.

Yet, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the ruling coalition, came perilously close to ruining this chance. When New Delhi said it was unhappy that Clinton should be visiting Islamabad — albeit for a few hours — the government was criticized for being immature, and not giving peace a try.

There is a line of thought that believes that Clinton may be, all said and done, a restraining influence on Musharraf.

Although Pakistan by itself may not be important in the current American scheme of things, an end to hostility in the region will probably help India become a major power in Asia. The U.S. feels that this will counter China’s growing strength and stem any attempt to cause friction between its neighbors.

Washington sees Beijing as central to its post-Cold War policy, and is determined to clip its wings by cultivating India, Japan and other Asian countries. On this score, the deterioration in New Delhi-Beijing ties — obviously a fallout from India’s nuclearization — has come in handy for Washington.

The question now is, will Clinton put his main host on par with China when he addresses Parliament in New Delhi? Also, will he lift the economic sanctions in a return for India’s signature on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a pledge not to deploy operational nuclear weapons in the field?

Of course, the president would want to, given his nation’s China phobia and business losses in the region (after the U.S. government imposed restrictions), which Europeans turned to their advantage by increasing trade with India.

Whatever be the outcome of this much-publicized tour, it seems sad that it should have taken 20 years for a U.S. head of state to come to India. Former President Jimmy Carter was the last to visit. Worse, Clinton comes just months before his term expires, which somewhat waters down the trip to a personal rather than an official one.

That Clinton did not care to fly into India in all the eight years that he had been at the helm can well be considered an unfortunate foreign policy failure of his regime. It will, therefore, be prudent not to expect dramatic results from this, one of Clinton’s farewell hops.

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