MORARJI DESAI, 81-year-old puritan, emerged from Indira Gandhi's imprisonment to lead the electoral battle against that "spoiled girl." He has now been named India's prime minister. The manner of his succession does not exactly build conference: two fellow disciples of Mahatma Gandhi hand-picked him in order to avoid political carnage among the startlingly diverse members of the coalition that defeated Indira Gandhi. His principal rival for the leadership, "untouchable" Jagjivan Ram, would not attend his swearing in. Yet Mr. Desai has the moral authority of one who, as much as any other single person, restored to the Indian people the democratic government of their choice. He has immense political experience. And, if he lacks the personal appeal of a "modern" politician, he has other qualities - those of a stern father - which may serve him and India well.

As you might expect, Prime Minister Desai took office pledging to honor the democratic currents that brought him to power. Certainly this will be the most closely watched aspect to his stewardship. For a lot of Americans, and perhaps Indians, too, are still sccratching their heads in happy puzzlement over India's vote. When Mrs. Gandhi imposed emergency rule in 1975, one common view was that no poor country could really be expected to maintain even a pretense of real democracy. Another view was that democracy was only a hobby of a certain part, and perhaps not the dominant part, of the Indian elite. Yet a third view was that India had swung so far to the left that a return to democracy disproof of these various hypotheses will be Mr. Desai's burden now.

He said, upon being sworn in, that he would have no "special relations" with any country. Some listeners concluded he was signalling a break with Indira Gandhi's close association with Moscow and a turn toward Washington. This strikes us as a dubious reading. Mr. Desai's record and India's circumstances alike indicate that he is most likely to pursue a truer nonalignment. The history of Indian-American relations argues strongly that it is not particularly in the interest of either country to try to build a patron-client relationship: Indians resent it; Americans get irritated by India's resentment. What India wants from Washington is not special favors, not necessarily even special dispensation in aid. It wants respect and consultation and, in development matters, the halting of American efforts to limit India's access to international lending sources.

Mr. Desai also said: "We do not believe in atomic weapons at all. I don't know whether it is necessary to have a nuclear explosion for peaceful purposes, but if it is not necessary it should never be done." India, of course, has conducted a "peaceful" nuclear explosion; it is a nuclear power. Just what policy changes Mr. Desai's statement may portend, the international communitywaits to learn.