The bells pealed here 35 years ago last Sunday, signaling the birth of the new nation of India. It was, said Jawaharlal Nehru, "a tryst with destiny."

But many here now worry that the democratic foundations so carefully laid by Nehru, India's first prime minister, are crumbling under the dynastic rule of his 64-year-old daughter, Indira Gandhi.

"We are close to becoming a banana republic," said Girilal Jain, editor of the pro-Gandhi Times of India. In a series of articles, he has ticked off examples of what he sees as the decay of institutions needed to bind the nation.

Nehru's once-proud Congress Party, which carried India into independence, appears to have lost its broad-based, grass-roots support. Now all power flows from the top -- Prime Minister Gandhi -- and all Congress politicians vie for her favor. Thus her Congress-I party managed to capture Haryana's state assembly last May after at least eight winning candidates switched sides to join her. One even shinnied down a hotel drainpipe to escape former political allies who were forcibly trying to keep him from defecting.

The respected daily newspaper, the Statesman, quoted a price of $160,000 for each switch. While many thought the figure was high, few doubted that assemblymen were paid to join the Gandhi party.

Indian politics today resembles the highly personalized shifting alliances that characterized America's one-party South before the mid- 1960s -- with Indira Gandhi as the Kingfish and little prospect of a viable opposition developing.

Gandhi allows no dissent within her own party and distrusts opposition parties, which she accuses of only wanting to remove her from power. She equates being anti-Indira with being anti-India.

A prominent critic of the prime minister, Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of India's spiritual father, Mahatma Gandhi, also worries about a disturbing loss of national focus. "In the past," he says, "the national scene was dominated by people who clearly were Indians first, with the family, caste and community ties clearly coming second. We have not produced their successors."

"We are losing sight of our India," he continues. "Our caste, language or ethnic group commands and exhausts our emotions. The symbols of India as a whole are vanishing."

With 15 official languages and hundreds of minor regional one, attempts even after 35 years of nationhood to give any one of them dominance can spark massive public disruptions. This spring, for instance, there were large-scale demonstrations in the southern Indian state of Karnataka over attempts to increase the teaching of Hindi -- spoken by the largest number, though by no means a majority, of Indians. The colonial tongue, English, remains the only linguistic link between different parts of the country.

Aside from regional and linguistic parochialism, perhaps the most striking aspect of this nation is the lack of social responsibility among the 700 million Indians, who comprise one sixth of all humanity.

Bus drivers and locomotive engineers regularly run away from scenes of accidents to the safety of their family or village. "The driver absconded" is the typical ending of a newspaper story on a bus accident. Similarly, most Indians acknowledge they would not stop at the scene of an accident, or even report it to police, for fear of becoming involved. Most would not even drive an injured person to a hospital because they are sure police would hold them responsible.

Indians shamelessly elbow each other aside in waiting lines, throw garbage wherever they are standing, block public thoroughfares for wedding or private festivals, and befoul walls and streets with urine even though public facilities are nearby.

Raj Thapar, editor of Seminar, a magazine specializing in Indian social commentary, describes it as "a unique, unparalleled capacity to disregard everything outside the self -- as if the earth was created specially to receive Indian dirt."

Scene: A traffic policeman in uniform leaves his post to urinate against the wall of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the majestic red standstone home of India's president.

Scene: An Indian woman pulls down a little girl's panties and holds her up so she can urinate on a Hindu temple's platform, where everyone must walk barefoot. A public bathroom is a scant 50 feet away.

In a rigidly hierarchical society, Indians beat on those under them and fawn over those who supposedly are their betters. As an apparent vestige from the colonial past, Europeans and Americans have greater freedom than Indians because of their white skin. It is called "the white man's pass."

Thapar describes this behavior as "excessive cringing" and blames India's predominate Hindu religion for fostering an "attitude of noncaring" among most people in this country.

"Except for the Gandhian (Mahatma, not Indira) types now almost extinct, sympathy for the poor and downtrodden is only for vote gathering, and philanthropy or charity is unknown except if it is to get the good wishes of beggers for personal prosperity or as an insurance for the hereafter," says K. F. Rustamji, a retired senior police official turned social philosopher.

Thapar adds: "We just don't care for our environment, for our neighbors, for the things we buy, for anything or anybody except those closely related to ourselves."

This is far different from the picture of India Nehru painted 35 years ago. He saw an India which "since the dawn of history" has been questing for nationhood, a vast subcontinent which, with the coming of independence, "discovers itself again."

"This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill will or blaming others. We have to build a noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell," Nehru told a crowded hall here in 1947.

Yet as he spoke of love and unity and progress, Indians were committing bloody atrocities on each other in the name of religion. Instead of reacting to their new freedom with joy, at least a half million Hindus, Moslems and Sikhs butchered each other as part of the massive migration of 11.5-million people that arose from the partition of the British Raj into two nations -- Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan.

Nothing like that has happened since, though India still suffers regularly from bloody communal riots among its three major religions.

The Cambridge-educated Nehru was struggling against a tide of 3,500 years of Indian culture that runs completely against the idealistic type of nationhood he envisioned.

Western-educated Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, for instance, believes that loyalty to something as ephemeral as a nation means nothing to an Indian. The only standard of responsible adult behavior in this country, he says, is "lifelong obligation to kith and kin. Dishonesty, nepotism and corruption as they are understood in the West are merely abstract concepts . . . irrelevant to Indian psychosocial experience."

India seems, as Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal says in his 1968 study "Asian Drama," a "soft state" lacking social discipline. "Policies decided are often not enforced, and authorities when framing policies are reluctant to place obligations on people."

This is especially true in the economic area, where India has made great strides since independence. But it has failed to make the dramatic leap needed to pull its masses out of the morass of poverty.

The fruits of its economic growth largely are eaten up by its exploding population, burgeoning at the rate of 2.5 percent a year. The population has doubled since independence and threatens to reach an astonishing 1 billion by the year 2,000.

Because of its achievements over the past 35 years, India now claims to be the 10th largest industrial nation with the third-largest pool of scientists and engineers. Yet its economy remains largely agriculturally based.

India runs nuclear plants and a fledgling space program, exports technology to less-developed nations, and produces most of the consumer goods sold in its heavily protected economy. It has reached the point where it can just about feed itself.

But many of its gains appear aimed more at building India's image as the most northern-like of the underdeveloped nations of the south rather than filling the country's basic needs.

Furthermore, the results of its massive development have failed to trickle down to the vast majority of Indians who still live in abject poverty, some in villages so primitive that progress is marked by one person getting a bicycle or a tin pot.

"While there is little doubt that large investments for development over successive five-year plans have added to the country's wealth, for the majority of our people there has been no marked improvement," said outgoing President N. Sanjiva Reddy in a farewell speech last month.

He warned that the failure to close the gap between India's handful of rich and its masses of poor threatens the future of democracy here.

Upper-strata Indians don't like to be reminded of their country's poverty; they prefer to think of the country's economic growth. But the central fact of life for most Indians is grinding, relentless poverty, and finding enough to fill their bellies for another day.

The World Bank lists India as the 15th poorest nation -- better off than countries such as Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, Afghanistan and Upper Volta but poorer than Malawi, Rwanda and even neighboring Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Forty percent of the world's 800 million destitutes and illiterates live in India. Its per capita income is a measly $226 a year -- "one of the lowest in the world," says the U.S. embassy's Economic Trends Report for India. While the figure has grown over the years, ex-President Reddy said that purchasing power has remained static.

Nor has India seriously tackled the problem of illiteracy. Only 36 per cent of its people can read or write.

"Many others have pulled ahead while India has romanticized and institutionalized its poverty and developed a philosophical detachment toward the degrading and exploitive conditions in which half its population lives," wrote B. G. Verghese, the new editor of the Indian Express in an article written for the magazine India Today.

There is a rising middle class, but its numbers are miniscule compared to the bulk of the people who remain mired in subsistence poverty. The richest 1 percent of this country, for instance, holds twice as much of the nation's wealth as the poorest 50 per cent.

The Planning Commission reports that the proportion of the Indian population under the poverty line has not changed significantly over more than two decades, though Gandhi in an interview with The Washington Post last month insisted that 35 years of economic development have produced a better life for the masses.

"When you say poor now, you do not mean what you meant at the time of independence," she said.

"People have more, but they expect much more. This is an outgrowth of development. When you see things have changed, can change, you want them to change faster. Before that you are apathetic and say, 'It is never going to change, so why should I bother.' "

Nonetheless, it seems that the two Indias that now exist -- one rich, relatively modern and industrialized, the other abysmally poor, agricultural and sometimes looking as if it is part of an earlier century -- will continue to stand side by side unless there are massive changes in the government's priorities so as to better distribute the wealth of the country.

But one of Gandhi's closest economic advisers says the depth of poverty is so great here that trying to spread the wealth would merelyyresult in "an equality of squalor."

All this paints a dismal picture for the future of India.

Although there are full-scale revolts in India's isolated northeast based.

India runs nuclear plants and a fledgling space program, exports technology to less-developed nations, and produces most of the consumer goods sold in its heavily protected economy. It has reached the point where it can just about feed itself.

But many of its gains appear aimed more at building India's image as the most northern-like of the underdeveloped nations of the south rather than filling the country's basic needs.

Furthermore, the results of its massive development have failed to trickle down to the vast majority of Indians who still live in abject poverty, some in villages so primitive that progress is marked by one person getting a bicycle or a tin pot.

"While there is little doubt that large investments for development over successive five-year plans have added to the country's wealth, for the majority of our people there has been no marked improvement," said outgoing President N. Sanjiva Reddy in a farewell speech last month..

He warned that the failure to close the gap between India's handful of rich and its masses of poor threatens the future of democracy here.

Upper-strata Indians don't like to be reminded of their country's poverty; they prefer to think of the country's economic growth. But the central fact of life for most Indians is grinding, relentless poverty, and finding enough to fill their bellies for another day.

The World Bank lists India as the 15th poorest nation -- better off than countries such as Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, Afghanistan and Upper Volta but poorer than Malawi, Rwanda and even neighboring Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Forty percent of the world's 800 million destitutes and illiterates live in India. Its per capita income is a measly $226 a year -- "one of the lowest in the world," says the U.S. embassy's Economic Trends Report for India. While the figure has grown over the years, ex-President Reddy said that purchasing power has remained static.

Nor has India seriously tackled the problem of illiteracy. Only 36 per cent of its people can read or write.

"Many others have pulled ahead while India has romanticized and institutionalized its poverty and developed a philosophical detachment toward the degrading and exploitive conditions in which half its population lives," wrote B. G. Verghese, the new editor of the Indian Express in an article written for the magazine India Today.

There is a rising middle class, but its numbers are miniscule compared to the bulk of the people who remain mired in subsistence poverty. The richest 1 percent of this country, for instance, holds twice as much of the nation's wealth as the poorest 50 per cent.

The Planning Commission reports that the proportion of the Indian population under the poverty line has not changed significantly over more than two decades, though Gandhi in an interview with The Washington Post last month insisted that 35 years of economic development have produced a better life for the masses.

"When you say poor now, you do not mean what you meant at the time of independence," she said.

"People have more, but they expect much more. This is an outgrowth of development. When you see things have changed, can change, you want them to change faster. Before that you are apathetic and say, 'It is never going to change, so why should I bother.' "

Nonetheless, it seems that the two Indias that now exist -- one rich, relatively modern and industrialized, the other abysmally poor, agricultural and sometimes looking as if it is part of an earlier century -- will continue to stand side by side unless there are massive changes in the government's priorities so as to better distribute the wealth of the country.

But one of Gandhi's closest economic advisers says the depth of poverty is so great here that trying to spread the wealth would merelyyresult in "an equality of squalor."

All this paints a dismal picture for the future of India.

Although there are full-scale revolts in India's isolated northeast region and occassional secessionist movements elsewhere, the odds are against India splitting apart. Nor is it likely that revolution will strike here -- the Indian temperament is too accepting of authority.

But the Hindu sages talk of changeless India, and that indeed is likely to be this country's future -- "lurching along as it is," says a Western academic with wide public and private experience here.

If that is true, modern India has squandered what Nehru believed was its "tryst with destiny."