ALMOST three years ago India's prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was swept out of office in an election many thought would never happen. It marked the end of the "emergency," the 20-month period when elections and freedom of the press were suspended, when judges were told what to do and when her political opponents were sent to jail by the hundreds. In the end the public pressure, perhaps combined with her own conviction of invincibility, persuaded her to go to the people. She lost in a landslide.

Despite her defeat, her self-assurance has never left her. Nehru's daughter is now fighting a tough and brilliant campaign for a return to office in an election scheduled Jan. 3. Constantly on the move, covering up to a third of the country in three-week bursts, she was just back from one of these wearing trips when we met at her bungalow in New Delhi, close by the palitial house her father used to live in.

There were about 100 people in the front garden, a seemingly disorganized crowd of would-be Congress Party candidates, petitioners, ice cream and candy vendors and foreign television crews. Only when she appeared on the veranda was there some semblance of order. All decisions appeared to be left to her: whom she would see, the time of appointments, even the kind of flowers that should be on the table.

She is, I had been told, often tense and, when on the stump, belligerent and shrill. In out two-hour interview the next day, she was at ease, taking every question in stride. Her overpowering confidence and elegant reasonableness are a potent mixture.

POWER: Mrs. Gandhi, you now seem to be an extraordinarily potent electoral force, yet it was only two years ago that many political commontators were writing you off. What has changed?

GANDHI: Nothing has changed. The political commentators have always been proved wrong. Straight away I was aware that the people felt there had been a mistake. And we have won most of the by-elections that have taken place during these two years.

POWER: What do you now see as the priorties both at home and abroad? What would you do as prime minister if you were elected?

GANDHI: That depends on the situation in the country at that moment. Basically, the major problem for India is that of poverty and economic backwardness. But today something else has become more important because there is utter chaos. No program for the removal of poverty can be put into effect unless there is a security of life and limb for the people. The most important thing is to bring back law and order. After that to bring down prices. Along with the rest of the world, we had a problem of inflation here way back in the '70s. India was practically the first country in the world which brought it down to nearly zero. Now it is soaring again.

POWER: Does it follow from what you are saying that it would be necessary to have another state of emergency?

GANDHI: The emergency was a shock treatment in a very special situation, which is not going to recur in history. It was after the Bangladesh war. Any war imposes a sudden and tremendous burdon on a country. It was preceded by vast inflows of refugees from East Pakistan. Not only had they disrupted our financial situation but the whole social and administrative situation. In Bengal we had more refugees than local people. Than we had the prisoners of war, who we kept for about a year or so. This was also a strain. This was followed by two years of very severe drought.

It was also the time when there was the serious global financial crisis. Yet at this time our political opponents decided to bring down the government. Not waiting for the elections but to bring it down unconstitutionally and undemocratically. They forced the Gujerat Assembly to be dissolved by coercing people to resign -- sometimes at the point of a gun, sometimes by beating them or threatening to kidnap their children. So really we had a situation in which the government was hardly functioning. The emergency was the only constitutional step we could take, and therefore we had the emergency.

POWER: One of the triggers for the emergency was your own legal position. You were charged with electoral malpractices.

What would happen if you were prime minister again and the courts, which are now considering charges against you, found you or your son Sanjay guilty?

GANDHI: What are the charges against me? They are absolutely ridiculous.

POWER: If they did find you gilty, would you then have to use extraordinary powers in that situation, another emergency?

GANDHI: If you mean do I want to hang on to the chair in that situation -- I do not. That is not the question. The question is that the country comes first. People realize that this present ruling group has no concern for the country. In 2 1/2 years they have brought us at every point to ruin, politically, socially, economically and internationally -- we have no standing left at all abroad.

POWER: And what if they find your son Sanjay guilty, against whom the charges are more serious?

GANDHI: If they find Sanjay guilty, presumably he will go to jail.

POWER: Even if you are the prime minister?

GANDHI: Yes, certainly.

POWER: India since the time of your father, Mr. Nehru, has attempted to pursue a policy of nonalignment. Yet it is suggested that India under your leadership was lined up more with the U.S.S.R. while Pakistan was more in alliance with the U.S.A. and China. Given the realities of international politics, can nonalignment really work?

GANDHI: It not only works, but it is absolutely essential. It is not true to say that we are in alliance with the Soviet Union. Obviously if there is someone coming to help us out in a given situation when we will take that help. When we first wanted to set up our steel plant we went to American, not the U.S.S.R. When they refused to help us then we asked somebody else. When we wanted to look for oil we first went to the American oil companies. They said, "You have no oil." But then the Soviet Union and Romania came and told us, "You have got a lot of oil." And they found it for us.

Every decision we take is on the merits of the case. If America decides that it's part of global strategy to help Pakistan, and Pakistan is attacking us with American weapons, surely there is going to be some reaction to it. But if there is any blame for that, it lies with the West. Mr. Kissinger made it clear. He said he couldn't do anything for India because he was desperately anxious to seal America's friendship with the Chinese. If Pakistan felt slighted, then his global strategy would be in jeopardy.

POWER: In his book Kissinger maintains that the India/Pakistan War was unnecessary since East Pakistan was clearly about to be granted some form of autonomy. Kissinger, however, agrees that Pakistan was responsible for some excesses, for millions of refugees arriving in India.

GANDHI: Some excesses? Killing millions of people -- and even after the war was practically over, killing every intellectual doctor, teacher, professor, scientist -- I would hardly call it "some excesses."

POWER: But he does think that your aim was not so much the righting of these wrongs as the breakup of Pakistan.

GHANDI: So why didn't I break it up then? What prevented me from breaking it up?

POWER: He ways he brought pressure on the Soviet Union to bring pressure on you and that stopped you.

GANDHI: Did the Soviet Union say a word to me? The Soviet Union did not speak to me about the matter. No, we had no intention of doing anything with West Pakistan.

POWER: The Soviet Union and India signed the Soviet-Indian Friendship Treaty just six months before the outbreak of hostilities. Is Kissinger right in suggesting that that gave you the confidence to go ahead with war?

GANDHI: No. There was no question of going to war in August -- that situation developed much later.

POWER: Kissinger's words were, I think, "It put a light to a powder keg."

GANDHI: No. That is not at all true. I can't understand a country like American being so afraid of the Soviet Union. I don't know whether they have an inferiority complex or what it is. This is what distorts the white view of what is happening everywhere in the world, and this is what has brought America to its present state. America could have had a tremendous influence in the world because in its technology it is so far ahead. But it is not able to play that role because of their play that role because of their wrong assessments, whether it is Mr. Kissinger's or anybody else's.

The Soviet Union wanted me to sign this treaty a long time ago. I didn't see how it would add to our friendship. We were friends and so on. But after the Bangladesh situation there was feeling that every country is against us and the Pakistanis even put out propaganda that the Soviet Union was backing them. In that situatin I did feel that the country's morale as a whole it was good to know that we had a friend, and that was the sole purpose.

POWER: Kissinger says that you and Nixon were intended by fate not to get along with one another. The meetings that you and he had were among the most idfficult of any meetings with a foreign leader. How did you feel you got on with Nixon?

GANDHI: I can't say that I admired his policy very much. And I am not a person who makes very much small conversation. He was unwilling to accept my assessment of any situation.

POWER: You engaged in fast and furious arguments?

GRANDHI: No. Not at all. always put forward my point of view, and he kept on repeating his. I tell you that in these things it was not so much Mr. Nixon talking as Mr. Kissinger, because Mr. Nixon would talk for a few minutes and would then say, "Isn't that right, Henry?" and from then on Henry would talk on for quite a while and then Nixon would say two words and then he would say, "Wouldn't you say so, Henry?" I would talk with Henry rather than Nixon.

POWER: If Pakistan goes ahead and tests a nuclear explosive, would you, assuming you were prime minister, restart the testing of nuclear devices?

GANDHI: Our testing has nothing at all to do with what any other coutnry does. If our scientists feel that it is useful for our economic development, then for peaceful purposes we shall test. But it does not mean that we shall make a bomb. I am opposed to the making and stockpiling of bombs. I do think that for a country like Pakistan, which has no industrial base, suddenly to go on to nuclear bombs is extremely dangerous, but danagerous for them, not just for us.

POWER: If they have this nuclear explosion, would that force you to rethink the commitment you have just made that India is not going to make any bombs?

GANDHI: I don't think so. How would it help if we also had bombs? How does it help except in increase tension?

POWER: If you look at yourself, what do you see as the source of the strength that enabled you to be prime minister for so long, to stand the pressures of the Indo-Pakistan war, to climb back from political defeat?

GANDHI: One is the Hindu phipoloshy, and two is a deep commitment. I was brought up brom babyhood in an atmosphere which was deeply committed to raising India, not just to win its political freedom but raising it as a nation in every way. It's not possible to do it in a lifetime, but if one at least advances a few steps.

POWER: And what is this Hindu philosophy which outside is often regarded as passive and acquiescent?

GANDHI: No, it isn't, it just faces reality. It's something that gives you an inner strength. I don't get uptight, as the Americans would say. In a situation of war you just face the situation as it comes. You give it your all. You do your very best. That's all you can do. You can't do better than that, and then you shouldn't be bothered about the rest. I took my defeat in the same way. The effect of my personal defeat was a great relief to me. Physically I felt as if a huge rock was off me, although I can't say that previously I felt there was a rock there.

POWER: Are you difficult to get on with?

GANDHI: I would not have so many friends if I were diffuclt to get on with.

POWER: You said when you were talking with Mr. Nixon you found small talk difficult.

GANDHI: I don't like small talk. There are a lot of interesting things happening in the world, and this is not small talk. I did not know whether he was interested in any of the things which were happening in India or what India is. I find a lot of Americans, in spite of living in such a large country with such global interests, are very insular. Important Americans come here. Now I would think that they come to meet me because they would like to know what is happening in India. But they will ask me what do you think of SALT, what do you think of Carter, what do you think of Kennedy's coming back?

POWER: I know that you have been racing around the country getting absolutely exhauted, and yet here you are the next day fresh as a daisy, totally relaxed.

GANDHI: Because I am an Indian, I think.

POWER: I can see why you got on Nixon's nerves.

GANDHI: You know there was that Peter Sellers film, "The Party"?

POWER: Oh yes, with the big swimming pool. I remember that.

GANDHI: Well, in that, Peter Sellers was an Indian. He was always putting his foot in it, extremely foolish but very lovable. It's all about film people. The director is saying to this poor girl, "If you go to bed with me I'll give you the part." Peter Sellers barges in the middle of all this. The director grabs hold of him and says, "Who do you think you are?" Sellers replies: "Indians don't think. We know who we are."