The "old boys" arrived in their navy blazers and school ties to celebrate where they had been and how far they had come. It was the 50th anniversary of the Doon school, India's premier incubator for the sons of the ruling class. In the foothills of the Himalayas, they bear-hugged each other in the golden afternoon sunshine, drank too much whiskey as the younger crowd danced to Bruce Springsteen, and placated wives who sulked that their husbands had regressed into adolescence overnight.

There was all the nostalgia and self-congratulation of a New England prep school reunion, but with a difference: Unlike Exeter or Andover, the Doon school and its old boys have a special and complicated relationship with India. Just look at one old boy who has done quite well for himself, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

He came on Sunday, two weeks ago, and stayed for more than 13 hours, a remarkable amount of time for a prime minister who is said to work routinely until 2 a.m. He was dressed like a young IBM executive in his old school blazer and tie. It was the first time anyone can remember his wearing Western clothes in public since becoming prime minister.

Gandhi joked with the gang from the class of 1960, posed for pictures with his dorm mates from Kashmir House, and sat politely through an interminable student production of "The Merchant of Venice." As he said in his speech to 3,000 assembled alumni and friends, coming back to Doon was like "coming back home." It was his kind of weekend, and his kind of crowd.

There was Arun Singh, class of 1959, Gandhi's chief defense adviser and closest confidant. There was Mani Shankar Aiyar, his top public-relations man. There was Romi Chopra, another old friend, the advertising strategist for the ruling Congress Party. There were the two top editors of India Today, the country's most influential newsmagazine.

There were members of parliament, top state elected officials, the military brass, major landholders, former maharajahs and -- in a group larger than all the others -- many of the powerful businessmen who dominate the economy. The "doscos," as Doon school boys like to call themselves, are part of the new political and capitalist elite that will see India into the next century.

Like many patricians, the dosco has traditionally looked down on politics as a dirty profession for corrupt party hacks, preferring instead the big salaries and prestige of the British commercial firms that were "Indianized" after independence 38 years ago. But Rajiv Gandhi, they like to say, is "one of us," and has given them hope that their aspirations will at last be reflected by the new "government that works faster."

The catch phrase around Delhi these days is that the Doon school "runs India," but that is too simple an analysis for a complex, chaotic country with so many competing spheres of influence. Rajiv Gandhi himself has said that just getting control of the bureaucracy may take him 10 years.

Yet the Doon school represents a major power center, and its ethos has shaped the vision of the man at the helm. To be at the reunion was to see how India is changing, and to be reminded of how disconnected from the masses Rajiv Gandhi and his friends really are. More important, the Doon school raises the question of who should run India, and whether it is healthy that a minuscule elite exerts such influence on a democracy whose founders were determined to break from its caste-ridden, imperialist past.

Dehra Dun is a little town on the edge of the mountains about 130 miles northeast of Delhi, its streets crowded with the usual bazaars, tea stalls, buses, horsecarts and cows. The school isn't far from the bustle, but inside the gates lies a different world. Graceful palms shade winding walkways. Roses and zinnias burst from gardens that surround the red-brick, ivy-covered buildings. It seems too quiet to be India. Gawky boys in gray student blazers call their elders "sir" as they point the way to the playing fields. Stunning wives, identified by name tags as "wife of old boy," float through in classic silk saris, the richly colored ones from South India with the traditional patterns that date back hundreds of years.

"I'm quite fed up, actually," complained a younger wife, baffled by her husband's description of the school as the seminal experience of his life. But such is Doon's emotional hold on its graduates. As Purshotam Nanda, an old boy from Assam, put it: "Doon made me a real man."

The Doon school has never been known for its academic rigor. In his speech, Gandhi recalled how it emphasized "building the total personality of the individual" more than "the question of marks, marks, marks."

That was the ideal of Stish Ranjan Das, the British-educated lawyer who first envisioned the school, and also of its first headmaster, Arthur Foot, a Cambridge-and Oxford-educated Englishman who sought to combine the rigors of the British public school system with a moral and spiritual outlook he saw as distinctly Indian.

Until Doon's establishment in 1935, private schools in India were for maharajah's sons who would pull up with their servants, carriage horses and polo ponies.

The Doon school took the cold shower approach. Everyone was to be considered equal, from royalty to scholarship students. Boys had to turn in their clothes and possessions for a school uniform and a small monthly allowance. Days began at 6 a.m., with two classes before breakfast, then hurtled along into a packed schedule of sports, "hobbies," and "socially useful productive work" around the school or among the poor. The idea was to create enlightened generalists who would leahe school, Arthur Foot said, "as members of an aristocracy, but it must be an aristocracy of service inspired by ideas of unselfishness, not of privilege, wealth or position."

That was the ideal. But one old boy recalls that scholarship students were looked down on as "dehati," or uncouth. As for working among the poor in a nearby village, this old boy estimates that in six years he probably went there twice, and that the requirement of "socially useful productive work" could also be filled by addressing envelopes for alumni.

The mode of instruction at Doon and the first language of most of its students is English. Hindi, the national language of India, is a required 40-minute class each day, but the boys have always referred to it as "lingo," a British public school term for a foreign language.

Rajiv Gandhi is heir to several traditions, not least the one represented by his own family, so it would be an exaggeration to say that Doon made him what he is today. Most old bnever even thought he'd amount to much, and they describe a shy student, undistinguished in the classroom and on the playing fields. But adolescence is a crucial time in anyone's life, and dozens of his fellow graduates said during the weekend that they see him as a classic Doon School product.

For example:

*A good dosco is traditionally a non-intellectual doer, more comfortable with action than reflection.

No one has ever accused the prime minister of being an intellectual, and he himself admitted in an interview last month that he had "flunked out" of Cambridge University, where he was studying for a mechanical science degree. Instead, he is seen as the young pragmatist in a hurry, cramming his days with the meetings and foreign travel that seem to recall his busy old days at Doon.

*Like the American preppy, a good dosco is not supposed to be intensely ambitious, or at least not ourdly so.

Again, no one has ever viewed the prime minister who only wanted to be an airline pilot as ambitious. It was the death of his younger brother, Sanjay, at the time the heir-apparent to the family dynasty, that forced him into politics. Since the death last year of his mother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, his advisers have projected the image, generally accepted to be true, of a decent young man trying his best in the role thrust upon him.

*A good dosco sees himself as confident to the marrow, free of the social airs that distinguish the supposedly less-secure nouveau riche. Yet there is always a certain distance if a person is not a member of the clan.

During the weekend, Gandhi was warm and open to his old classmates but had a certain aristocratic detachment that reminded people of his patrician grandfather and the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. People close to him claim that Gandhi's self-possesion has enabled him to rese key policies of his mother without agonizing.

*A good dosco has a secular outlook on life, and believes that caste and religion should not be a factor in politics.

In an interview published last month in the Sunday Times of London, Gandhi took this several steps further and said he did not believe in God. The statement caused barely a ripple in one of the most religious countries in the world, perhaps because Nehru was a well-known agnostic.

But caste and religion are in fact central to Indian politics. Some critics say the prime minister was slow to react to caste and communal riots in the state of Gujurat this spring because he and his advisers didn't understand why they were happening.

*The good dosco believes that overpopulation is the most serious problem facing India.

Gandhi has said many times that this is his number-one priority, but no new plan has yet been annced to lift the existing program from its quaqmire. Ironically, it was a dosco -- Sanjay Gandhi -- who made such a mess of it with his forced sterilization camps that the memory still makes the government nervous about launching an ambitious family planning program today. Sanjay's hardline approach can be seen as another example of a dosco not understanding the sociology of his own country, but the old boys prefer to look on Sanjay as an aberration, a bad egg even at school.

As the story has it, Sanjay once set up a stand that sold cold drinks to boys coming off the playing fields. Even among the fledgling capitalists, this was looked down upon. Why try to make money off your fellow doscos? Another boy was more in step when he set up a free drink stand near Sanjay's. Sanjay was so enraged that he slashed the boy's tennis racquet. It does not surprise the dosco at all that Sanjay never managed to graduate.

The good dosco wants to combine the best of Western technology with a vague kind of Eastrn spiritualism that he believes will create a superior human being. America is admired for its know-how, but disdained for a moral system viewed as decadent.

As Gandhi said in his speech: "The Americans have listed pursuit of happiness in their (Declaration of Independence). Are they really reaching it? Is technology bringing happiness to the world? I don't think it is."

On the morning after the reunion, one of India's major tea planters was relaxing with family and friends at a teacher's house on campus. He talked about life on his beautiful tea estate, which he said was not as idyllic as might be imagined. He has more than 2,000 illiterate laborers, he said, and "the more you give these fellows, the more ungrateful they become." He keeps his "own code of discipline" on the estate because "legislation today is totally in favor of labor" and because "the government has been pampering them too much to get votes." The laborers do, how salaam him when he passes, in the same way they used to honor the British. "The politicians tell them not to do it," the tea planter said, "but I like it."

He sells his tea to the major brokerage houses, also dominated by old boys. "They give preference to doscos," the planter said. "Your teas are sold before everyone else's."

It is unfair to suggest that this man speaks for every Doon school graduate, but he does represent a modern-day imperialism and inbreeding that pervades much of the old-boy network, and that once prompted former Prime Minister Morarji Desai to say of the school, "If I had anything to do with this place, I'd close it down."

Indeed, for all the talk of service to one's country over the weekend, the most popular dosco job has been that of an executive in a large company. The graduating classes from 1951 to 1960 -- Rajiv Gandhi's era -- have produced 90 of them. "It's my biggest problem," said the current headmaster, Gulab Ramchandani, who worries that the school is tura self-absorbed entrepreneurial class rather than providing talent for public service.

The dosco argues that he is doing the heavy lifting in society by making money -- "In creating wealth I'm creating employment," the tea planter said, echoing his classmates -- and feels that for this he deserves respect. Whether he is right is one of the fiercest debates in India today. Rajiv Gandhi and his friends say there is statistically less poverty, but leftist economists say there are more poor people in India than ever before. So far no one really knows whether the recent prosperity of the middle class, estimated as a 10th of India's 750 million people, is trickling down to the other 90 percent.

But one thing is clear: the people in that top 10 percent, with the dosco at the apex, say they haven't felt so good about India since the mid-1950s, the heady post-independence days when Nehru was at his prime. They feel the world's "great experiment in democracy" is back on track, and see themselves as its natural leaders.

Yes, the dosco admits, his school is elitist, but better to have an educational "meritocracy" in charge than what one old boy disdained as "a middle-class trading community" so recently arrived on the economic scene that it would turn its back on the class below it. "The real poor," said one old boy, "are better off ruled by an elite."

There were a lot of analogies made during the weekend between the era of John F. Kennedy and the first year of Rajiv Gandhi. Kennedy is admired in India as the American president who cared most about the developing world, and so the dosco likes to think that the boys of Rajiv's Camelot are enlightened champions of the poor. But in Gandhi's first year, he has offered more initiatives promoting business and high technology than helping the lower classes.

More troubling is the right-to-rule mentality pervading the doscos.

"When we were in school, we used to say that when we grew up, things would be different," said Lalit Mohan Mehra, class of 1959. "When we did grow up, they weren't. But now, it's the way we thought it should be. This is the India we dreamed of."