Ronald Reagan called it "the year of India," and then got down to how he thought things went yesterday in meetings with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. "Although a few years separate us -- just a few," the president said in his toast at last night's state dinner, pausing for the inevitable appreciative laughter, "we hit it off."

"I think we did," the 40-year-old Gandhi agreed a little later in the Blue Room where he and Reagan held court for a dazzling international crowd seen as often as not in the slick color pages of jet-setty W.

But, Gandhi was asked, did it mean that the sometimes troubled Indo-American relations were going to get better?

"Well, you know," he replied, "to expect suddenly that everything will change maybe is a bit over-optimistic. But certainly they will move in the right direction. There are lots of areas where we have disagreement, but disagreement not necessarily on the principle of the thing but in the method of tackling the issue."

Gandhi said he talked "very frankly about everything" to Reagan during their Oval Office meeting. "I think we had a very frank exchange on both sides, an amicable frank, not aggressive frank."

The big question of the day, as Gandhi moved about Washington -- to a State Department lunch hosted by Secretary of State George Shultz, to the National Academy of Sciences and to the National Gallery of Art to see "The Sculpture of India" -- was whether he'd carry on the political philosophy of his mother, the late prime minister Indira Gandhi. At the White House dinner in his honor, He answered that question, too.

"In many ways, yes," he said, "but in many ways I am myself."

There was an air of celebration about more than the Festival of India, which starts today. Vice President Bush, for one thing, was celebrating his 61st birthday.

"It's a terrible traumatic thing . . ." Bush began.

"He's faking," Barbara Bush interrupted.

"It was a beautiful transition from 60 to 61," Bush began again, telling about his lunch with Reagan. "He gave me a little tie with Snoopy on it, and Don Regan walked in and gave me a little calculator. Wonderful!"

The Bushes take the Gandhis to Houston this weekend where, besides high techonology, they will show the visitors a little Texas high society at a big dinner Saturday night.

Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, somewhat reserved around reporters but ever so talkative to designer Mary McFadden, contributed to the evening's Indo-American fashion parade with her gold and pale green sari. She wore dangling earrings of indeterminate metal. "Just Indian earrings," she said, moving off into the crowd.

Because a state dinner is a state dinner, there were the largely formulaic toasts.

"Although young, India's democracy has achieved strength and maturity," Reagan said. "Today I found that's also true of India's prime minister, who's just three years older than independent India.

Gandhi spoke longer, covering the subjects of the arms race, nonalignment and "the growing militarism of the region around India."

"Nonalignment has been a positive force for peace," he said. "One friendship need not be at the cost of another."

Later, using an American idiom, as observers say he often does, Gandhi said, "We need technology in a big way."

Many of the White House guests had some connection to India. The list included several people involved with the Festival of India, including its Indian chairman, Pupul Jayakar.

Others were there for the usual reasons: friendship, money or glitz. Nancy Reagan's friends and family were in evidence, with Betsy Bloomingdale and Nancy Reagan's brother Dr. Richard Davis attending. The list was short on the kind of Hollywood glamor the Reagans enjoy, but Bloomingdale, Parisian socialite Sao Schlumberger and designer McFadden provided the familiar faces and threads for followers of haute couture. McFadden said she has spent the past year working on nearly two dozen projects in India connected with the festival. Two other names from the social pages were those of Baron Guy de Rothschild and Baroness Marie-Hele'ne de Rothschild.

The contingent of journalists was a little larger than usual, with publisher Rupert Murdoch, New York Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, Newsweek bureau chief Morton Kondracke, and Atlanta Constitution columnist Lewis Grizzard as guests.

Some of the guests were sometime-students of India before they received their invitation to the White House.

"I had a meeting with him in January," said former secretary of state Henry Kissinger of the Indian prime minister. "Extremely thoughtful."

Is Gandhi much like his late mother?

"He's much younger," Kissinger said gravely, as if revealing a state secret. His wife Nancy laughed, he smiled and took one step back to signal reluctance.

"I better not get into that," he said.

Actress Loretta Young, who last attended a state dinner during Franklin Roosevelt's administration, had what seemed to be a largely esthetic interest in India and its new leader.

"Went to India about 15 years ago," she said. "Went to see, of course, the Taj Mahal, the most beautiful building."

And of Rajiv Gandhi, she said, "He's not only a delightful man, but gorgeous to look at."

The "gorgeous" state leader was clad in a black Nehru jacket. Unlike the Indian silk dresses many of the women guests wore, Nancy Reagan's white silk skirt and green and white beaded blouse looked more like a feminized dinner jacket than anything from the Subcontinent.

At any state dinner you'll see guests who clearly feel right at home. Last night, Sheila Weidenfeld, Betty Ford's White House press secretary, had none of the bedazzled glint in the eye that comes to White House neophytes as she chatted with photographers. And while Grizzard may have been a newcomer to state dinners, he had been through the White House experience once before, although in a somewhat different form.

"Last time I was here," said Grizzard, "we were in the back yard listening to Willie Nelson and drinking beer."

After a dinner that included crab and cucumber mousse, supreme of cornish hen, fine herbs sauce, wild rice with toasted walnuts, baby zucchini; bib lettuce and chocolate boxes with fruit sorbets and peach champagne sauce, guests went to the East Room, where cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the National Symphony music director, performed. After his recital, he kissed both Reagans and his accompanist on both cheeks.

Early in the evening, sirens blared as the Gandhis' 13-car entourage whooshed them to the National Gallery of Art.

"Aren't they so attractive," gushed gallery director J. Carter Brown moments after the Gandhis left for the White House. "And so thoughtful and interested. I've been through the museum with heads of state before, and you can tell when all they care about is the photo opportunity. Mrs. Gandhi had actually read the catalogue!"

Reagan house guest Betsy Bloomingdale stopped traffic with an off-the-shoulder red gown. Attached to the back of her dress was a matching bow about the size of a Volkswagen.

"I wonder how she got in the car?" observed one guest at the National Gallery.

The Gandhis' gallery stop was marked by excruciatingly tight security. In part, the security concerns stem from the assassination of Indira Gandhi by Sikh bodyguards last year.

At the gallery, the guests, reporters and staff were forced to go through metal detectors. A bartender complained that he wasn't allowed to bring his ice pick with him. The press pool was also unusually small, causing one minor flap.

Coca-Cola underwrote the party, and a young man identifying himself as an executive assistant to the president of the company demanded that a news magazine photographer be allowed in the pool. The gallery official, Katherine Warwick, explained that it was not possible.

"Madame, may I remind you that we are paying for this," he yelled. "Not all of it, dear," said Warwick, patting his hand.

"We will never pay for another damn thing again!" he snapped. She smiled and contacted Carter Brown, who also said no go.

"You'll be hearing from me," screeched the man, and off he went.

Brown took the Gandhis through the exhibit, "The Sculpture of India."

"You just get this sense that they both have a marvelous sense of their own being," said Brown. "I must say they are among the most interested people I have brought around this museum."

Earlier in the day, Establishment Washington went to lunch with Gandhi amid the same rigid security precautions. Some who arrived by cab had to hoof it the last rainswept block to the red-carpeted entrance at the State Department.

Even top-level State Department officials had to exit the building, walk around it and reenter on C Street, where, like all the other guests, they passed through airport-style magnetometers.

If Foggy Bottom was like an armed camp outside, where demonstrations failed to materialize against the Indian leader, inside the elegant Diplomatic Reception Rooms the climate could not have been more tranquil. The prime minister and Sonia, her forehead dotted with a minuscule tilak and wearing a bright green and navy silk sari, received the 200 guests with Shultz and his wife Helena.

It was, as one State Department official put it, "a star-studded guest list," with names like Maureen Reagan, Happy Rockefeller, David Rockefeller and Beverly Sills.

Some of the guests had had their differences with Gandhi's mother, the late Indira Gandhi, but it fell to Shultz to put an optimistic spin on Indo-American relations.

"Despite differences," Shultz said in his toast to Gandhi after everyone had dined on lamb chops, asparagus and corn bread, "we see a significant parallelism of interests between us."

In the crowd were at least four former U.S. ambassadors to India: John Kenneth Galbraith, Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, John Sherman Cooper and William Saxbe.

If their impressions of Rajiv Gandhi weren't yet quite formed, a couple of them didn't hesitate to recall their impressions of his mother.

"Mrs. Gandhi and I got along well but she could be aggravating," said the characteristically outspoken Saxbe, who was ambassador from 1975-77. "She played one country off against another. I'm sure Russia was as frustrated with India as we were. She didn't play favorites that way."

Cooper, who was Dwight Eisenhower's envoy to India from 1955-56, remembered Rajiv Gandhi's grandfather, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, as a man who had been much criticized for India's nonaligned position. He first met Indira Gandhi when she was her father's hostess, after she had separated from her husband and "the little fellows Rajiv and his late brother Sanjay were so little that I never saw them."

Cooper said he first met Rajiv Gandhi last fall at Indira Gandhi's funeral and came away with the feeling that he was more like his grandfather than his mother.

"I think he is different," said Cooper, who did not always approve of Indira Gandhi's politics.

Moynihan, ambassador to India from 1973-75, said that politically Rajiv Gandhi may resemble his mother, "but there's a rule we used to say in our government classes that no single thing predicts a person's politics more accurately than his age."

Galbraith, John Kennedy's ambassador to India from 1961-63, and still the diplomat 22 years later, said of any resemblance between Gandhi and his mother: "In the finest Indian tradition, everybody has his own territory." Rhetorically, he added, "You remind me of your father -- but not all that much."

On the status of U.S.-Indian relations, Galbraith said he told some reporters that "the breakthrough had already been achieved with 'A Passage to India' and 'The Jewel in the Crown.' And I had not recently seen any Indian who did not want to come to the United States and any American who did not want to go to India."

Some guests weren't exactly sure how they happened to be invited, though none cared to be on the record about it. One prominent Republican said in fact it was the first time he'd been invited to anything under this administration.

Happy Rockefeller, who was also making a rare appearance at an official Washington function, said she met Indira Gandhi when her late husband Nelson was governor of New York, but that Rajiv represents a whole new generation.

"You know, it's funny," she said. "I see my daughter's friends now having children and it makes me think that George Gershwin really summarized life in 'Ole Man River just keeps rolling along.' "