AMERICANS don't seem to find Indians easy to like. They annoy us. And as far as most of us are concerned, it can end right there. Starving India. One of the world's great losers. Who needs it?

Yet the fact is that India is not starving and hasn't been in recent years. And I would like to suggest that neither is India the loser we make it out to be.

With 650 million people, it has the vastest manpower base of any country other than China. Despite its international image as primitive, it is essentially self-sufficient in a broad range of manufactured goods, from trucks to hi-fi. It's got the third largest standing army in the world, and some U.S. military analysts are convinced that in a conventional war the Indians could fight neighboring China at least to a standoff.

Atomic warfare is another matter. India says it will not make a nuclear bomb. But it already has exploded one "peaceful" nuclear device and could manufacture and deploy warheads at will.

So here we have an India the world seldom considers, a huge nation rich in human, industrial, military, scientific and a host of other resources, an India which doesn't fit the conventional wisdom.

But we have our notions about India and its people, and when they don't comply with our views we're annoyed:

They're miserably poor. Why don't they show gratitude for the money our government gives them?

They're arrogant and act superior. What do they have to be superior about?

They obviously don't know how to run their own country. Why are they constantly telling us what's wrong with ours? Who do they think they are?

As Peter Sellers, doing his sing-song Indian routine, responded to an antagonist in "The Party" a few years ago, "In my country we don't have to think who we are. We know exactly who we are." Preaching at Each Other"

THERE'S MORE to that flip movie rejoinder that probably was intended. Indians do know who they are, as a people and as people. In daily life, this certainty about who is whom has, for example, made the ancient and terribly complex caste system the continuing basis for Indian society - and made it generally acceptable although its most repugnant aspects are constitutionally banned.

This self-knowledge may the best possible clue to what makes Indians and Americans - the process is mutal - have such difficulty getting along with each other.

Because they understand, to their own satisfaction, just who and what they are, Indian feel justified, even obliged, to tell the rest of us how to set our houses in order. Sound familiar? Except for the fact that they're poor and we're rich, isn't this exactly what Americans do?

"They like to preach and we like to preach," an American diplomat who's spent many years in and around India observed the other day. "So we end up preaching at each other, and that's intolerable to both sides."

Curiously, now that a pair of lay preachers are heading the governments in both countries, things have seldom been better between us. "There's no doubt about it," said the same diplomat, "Jimmy Carter and Morarji Desai genuinely like each other."

Why a Georgia peanut farmer and a Brahmin health faddist past 80 should hit if off so well isn't immediately clear.It may be mutual recognition and admiration for each other's success in hoisting themselves out of near-obscurity, one in relative youth, the other in old age, to positions of ultimate power. It may also be private acknowledgment of the public image each leader so studiously cultivates of straitlaced religiosity and scrupulous honesty on coming to office after their nations went through extended periods of severe doubt and distrust.

Whatever the reasons, Carter and Desai do like each other and, partly as a result of their personal relationship, our two countries are getting along better with each other than we have since the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

But we don't like each other very much. At the government level, the United States still doesn't consider India an important power. And Indian governments, all Indian governments, crave that recognition.

They still like to badger us on our military presence in the Indian Ocean. Some U.S. analysts even fear that the continuing buildup of the Indian navy is basically intended to replace words with action.

As Third World leaders, the Indians still ride herd on the United States for its attitudes in the North-South dialogue over consumer nations' treatment of raw-material producer countries.

This, obviously, doesn't go down well in Washington. But some U.S. experts are beginning to perceive a subtle change in India's view, based on its understanding that it is becoming a major exporter of manufactured goods as well as commodities. Beyond the Arrogant Indian

AT THE PERSONAL level, Americans at home and abroad tend to meet only those Indians who've battled their way up through extraordinary competition for desperately sought-after positions of power in political, civil service, academic, scientific and business circles.

These are the arrogant Indians, the handful who create the national image. They feel what is for them a justifiable sense of pride in achievement, and out of this grows a feeling of the right to lecture the world on its weakness.

If we could bring ourselves to accept, or ignore, this attitude of the Indian elite, we would undoubtedly better understand this country we're constantly told is incomprehensible.

India is no more incomprehensible than the United States. The people of India need and want our sympathetic understanding. What they don't want is our pity.

If the U.S. government and the American people are ever going to decide that India is worth this level of attention, we're going to have to realize that India not only doesn't want to be pitied, but it doesn't need to be, either.

In the general scheme of things in the Third World, and in Asia particularly, India has begun to look like a good bet for making it. The dismissal of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the poll last March, nothing short of a revolution, was the first clear sign of new hope for India, certainly since the end of the British raj 30 years ago, and perhaps in centuries.

Until Gandhi was voted out of office, her Congress partu had run the country without interruption since the British gave up what had been the jewel in the crown of Empire. And, with a very brief hiatus, the leadership of the country and the party had been in the hands of Gandhi and her late father, Jawaharial Nehru.

Thus the boast of many educated Indians that theirs was the world's largest democracy had long been subject to doubt. The Congress Party held the governoring process in a relentless grip, and no one ever seriously doubted it would continue to do so forever. The opposition was a ragtag bunch of has-beens and would-bes who seemed incapable of subjugating their differences for the common goal of wresting power from the Congress.

But since Gandhi, through ham-fisted ineptitude, made their victory unavoidable, the former squabblers have managed to hang together and mount what is slowly, very slowly, becoming a viable government.

Fortunately for Desai and his ministers, India has been blessed by an extraordinary sucession of three superb monsoons. These beneficent rains have enabled the government to stockpile foodgrains now claimed to total 22 million tons.

Should the next monsson fail - and logic dictates that an approaching rainy season will be poor - there is enough food on hand to avert critical shortages.

Another stockpiles, this one of $5 billion in foreign exchange reserves, would enable the government to buy whatever grain it might need from abroad. It may be anticipation of such an exigency that kept the government from spending this horde, although Western experts counsel that the money should be used to buy specialized equipment to spur sorely lagging domestic and foreign investment.

The government's failure to spend its foreign cash holdings, or to barter its grain stocks, is bothersome to certain U.S. analysts, but not surprising. Famine, or the threat of it, is the most onerous prospect any Indian government faces. It means failure. And for a new regime, the first non-Congress government in history, the chance of such a failure is too grave a risk to take.

For this reason above all, the Densai regime has been extremely conservative in its first 10 months of life. It has initiated few major projects. Rather, it has ridden Gandhi's coattails, perpetuating programs she launched during her decade in power.

Despite its continuing rhetoric about improving human rights, the government has retained most of the legislation which gave Gandhi her emergency power, like the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, the Defense of India Rules and the 42d constitutional amendment.

Internationally, the Desai government has improved India's relations with its neighbors. Nagging border fighting with Bangladesh has been halted. Although Bangladesh guerrilla leader Kader (Tiger) Siddiqui has quietly been given refuge in West Bengal, he is, according to intelligence reports, kept under tight surveillence.

Relations with the martial law administration in Pakistan are somewhat cooler, but Foreign Minister Atal Bihara Vajpayee, regarded by the Pakistans as an anti-Muslim bigot, is scheduled to visit Islambad in February. Population Problems

DESAI's most troubling failure, so far, has been to virtually abandon all birth control programs. Family planning fell into utter disrepute during Gandhi's 21-month emergency because of her son Sanjay's enforced sterilization program.

The single greatest long-range crisis India faces is being overrun by its exploding population.By the end of this century, just 22 years from now, India is destined to be populated by a billion people. Until very recently, most U.S. specialists threw up their hands in horror at this prospect. But of late some have begun to take heart. Why, they're not entirely sure.

ONe said recently that didn't really know how to explain his attitude, but he had a "gut feeling" that when the crisis reached sufficient proportions, "the Indian genius will find a way. They've always managed to muddle through and they always will."

A more specific explanation is the understanding that India still has a lot of unpopulated and underpopulated land, some of it arable. India is far less densely populated than, for example, Japan, and not under nearly such terrible pressure as Bangladesh.

Why this sudden realization? It could be just because so many people in the West were enthused by the functioning of democracy in the March elections, and their enthusiam has not yet waned. It could be that because so many Indians were volted by Sanjay Gandhi's authoritarian program and foreign specialists no longer accept the thesis that the people of India must, or can, be badgered into reducing the size of their families.

Instead, an earlier view is being recycled - that more jobs and better education must come first.In this way, Indians will come to understand that smaller families can live better than the large ones they still feel they require for survival.

These tasks obviously are monumental. Desai, despite his incredible health and mental agility, surely will not live long enough to bring them to fruition. His People's Party government, as well, may not last long enough.

Yet the opinion is spreading among interested specialists that India is not destined for failure. Its success probably will not be measured in terms of West Germany or Japan, but more like that of China, though under some peculiarly Indian form of democracy.

America's recently resumed love affair with China is based largely on its "success." We see China as a winner. And Americans like winners.