BOMBAY, India -- Just hours before Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin and his entourage landed amid the chaos and crushing poverty of this historic trading center, the power grid for much of the area failed, plunging the homes that have electric power into darkness.

Such failures are fairly common here. But for Rubin, the fourth U.S. Cabinet member to visit India since the start of the year, the timing was exquisite. Each Cabinet member came to convince India's leaders that it was not in their interest to allow a slowing in the broad movement to open their economy.

Each of the Americans has gone on to add that one early test would be to assure the completion of an American-built power plant near Bombay, one of the country's first privately constructed plants, which would help to relieve an overburdened, aging power system. But the contract, completed less than two months ago, has already run into trouble from politicians who charge that by letting U.S. companies into a once-sealed market, India is submitting to a new form of economic imperialism.

In his first trip abroad, a round-the-world tour that took him from Indonesia to Dublin, Rubin constantly found himself walking a fine line between persuading countries like India to embrace deeper reforms beloved of international investors, and not appearing to be a visiting trade negotiator demanding instant change.

This is the kind of tough balancing act that marks the new era of U.S. foreign policy. Now, the looming issues between the United States and India are not New Delhi's role in the nonaligned movement or its nuclear-weapons program, but the liberalization of its shallow and corrupt financial markets, its reluctance to allow private competition in the insurance business and its slowness in sweeping away choking regulations that date to the British Raj.

To travel with Rubin, the former co-chairman of Goldman, Sachs & Co. and a man with an uncanny ability to cut through economic obfuscation, is to witness how much the age of economic diplomacy thrusts the United States into the heart of other nations' domestic economic policies.

In four days here, he dug into the guts of the country's changing economic structure at an extraordinary level of detail.

Meeting with U.S. executives in New Delhi, he debated whether the United States should push India to create a Securities and Exchange Commission. He urged Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, who has slowed the economic reform movement after a series of political setbacks, to finally allow foreign insurance companies to enter the Indian market, which has been controlled by government-run firms. He grappled with the question of what to do about India's ancient ``octroi'' taxes, levied against every truckful of products that passes a state border -- taxes that both slow the process of moving goods, including U.S. imports, and increase their cost.

``This is a long-term effort,'' Rubin said midway through his trip. ``We have to help build a successful society in order to build markets for American goods 10 or 15 years down the line. But we also have to be extremely respectful of what they have done, and make it clear we're certainly not meddling in their affairs.''

Rubin repeatedly edited his speeches to remove wording that seemed to lecture the Indian government about the need for change, and when answering questions often offered what he called ``a perspective on what the markets will require.''

If that was the message, then it often did not translate. News accounts in Indian newspapers of Rubin's visit frequently sounded the theme of U.S. pressure, and suggested that the demands of ``the market'' were really the demands of the United States.

Just as Rubin arrived here, the opposition parties blocked approval of legislation in Parliament that would strengthen patent and copyright protection as required under a new world trade agreement; it was a provision Washington had pressed for vigorously.

But the reality is that it would help put out of business companies here that copy American software or make knockoffs of Kellogg's corn flakes. Opponents of Rao have seized on it as evidence that he is bowing to the United States.

When Rubin announced midway through his trip that he would have postponed his visit if he had known that Iran President Hashemi Rafsanjani would be there at the same time on a state visit, the Treasury secretary was described in the Indian press as ``displaying a petulance beyond his brief.''

``Does the U.S. consider India as a banana republic?'' one major paper, The Hindustan Times, asked the other day. It suggested that even though the United States is by far India's largest trading partner and its greatest source of investment, New Delhi should keep its distance, rather than follow ``America's shifting allergies and preferences, which make yesterday's friends today's foes, and vice-versa.''

The incident underscored the mixed emotions that the new, economically driven foreign policy has evoked. On the one hand, Indian officials say they welcome the sudden high-level attention from Washington, including two visits by Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary, focusing on the country's tremendous needs for electric power, and one by Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, who traveled with a small army of chief executives and used the moment to seal about $6 billion in deals. But now the pressure has come to seem a bit overwhelming.

``If the impression develops, and it has, that America is delving deeply into the details of India's economic policy, it will have a backlash,'' said S.L. Rao, director general of the National Council for Applied Economic Research in New Delhi. ``There has not been enough effort to show that these kinds of linkages solve the problem of health or education or poverty, and that makes them easy political targets.''

Rubin made that effort repeatedly, even spending a day at a World Bank site in a remote mountain area where deeply impoverished villagers are being taught how to work the land so that it retains more monsoon rainfall, increasing the harvest. But in a country only beginning to learn about international capital markets, it is far harder to make the case that reforming the workings of the Bombay stock exchange will soon help the country's poor.

``One of our biggest challenges,'' Rubin said, ``will be to demonstrate how economic reform will help all levels of society, not just the elite. It takes a lot of explaining.''

Even when the benefit seems obvious -- such as the power plant in Maharshita state near Bombay under construction by Enron Corp., Bechtel and General Electric -- political problems abound. Rao's Congress Party lost the state election last month, and in a battle that seems to have more to do with political power than electric power, the new state government has vowed to review the awarding of the contract to the U.S. companies.

India is hardly the only country, of course, where the United States has thrust itself into the innermost plumbing of the domestic economy. It has done so for years in Japan, seeking to sweep away hidden trade barriers. In recent months it has mandated broad, highly specific rules for Mexico -- down to what its trade balances should look like and what its interest-rate policy should be -- as the price that country must pay for a $20 billion bailout.

But both those cases involve large trading partners, in which the United States holds a tremendous economic stake. India, in comparison, is tiny, attracting a scant $1.6 billion of U.S. investment in 1992 and 1993, the last years for which there are reliable figures. Over the same period, U.S. companies invested seven times more in China, and six times more in Thailand, a country of only 20 million, compared with 900 million in India.

Rubin and other U.S. officials say they are being motivated by the China experience, in which the United States waited too long, let too many competitors enter the market first, then engaged too late in long battles with the Chinese to end market practices that discriminated against foreign companies.

``As a nation we were late on the economic change that was taking place in China,'' Rubin said as his trip ended. In places like India, ``we ought to be strategic and position ourselves now,'' he said, adding, ``That is a strategic view for dealing with the developing world.'' The U.S. ambassador to India, Frank G. Wisner, a longtime diplomat in Asia, was more blunt: ``The Japanese are not in the line of sight. It's our game to lose.''

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