Indira Gandhi's political fortunes took another tumble yesterday when the Supreme Court upheld an election commisssion ruling stripping her party of its election symbol.

In a country where 70 percent of the voters are illiterate, a party's election symbol is perhaps its most important possession. Even if voters cannot recognize a party name or that of its leader, they know the symbol.

For the last decade, voters by the millions have trooped on the polls to cast their ballots for the Cow and Calf of the Congress Party. That symbol, and before it a pair of bullocks, has stood for the glories of India's nationalist movement, for Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and for the spirit of modern India.

Now Indira Gandhi has lost it, with the court ruling that the official Congress Party, from which she split last month, can keep the Cow and Calf for itself.

With elections schedualed in a number of states in southern and eastern India later this month, it is essential that Gandhi find a symbol for her party and the hundreds of candidates it plans to run.

Without an effective symbol that it can display widely, the so-called Indira Congress would appear to have little chance of making an effective start and Gandhi's attempt at a political comeback from a shattering failing national elections a year ago could be short-circuited.

The Election Commission has more than 60 registered symbols on its books, but only four parties - the Congress, two Communist parties, and the ruling peoples party - have a right to use the widely recognized "national symbols." All other parties have to make do with a hodgepodge of crudely drawn symbols that may well have validity only in one or two Indian states, be quite unrecognizable elsewhere.

The national party symbols are "Peasant-in-Wheel" (Peoples), "Ears of Corn and Sickle" (Communist Party of India), "Hammer, Sickle and Star" (Communist Party of India, Marxist) and "Cow-and-Calf" (Official Congress Party).

Among others that have already been spoken for by smaller parties are the Bicycle, the Rising Sun, sets of Scales, Elephants (pointing left of right, with different significance in different states). Umbrellas, a Power Dam (an extraordinarily difficult symbol to draw, and not to be used in a desert state like Rajasthan, where there is not enough water to have dams, the Swastika (a Hindu religious symbol, stolen ny the Nazis and having no fascist implications in India), the Lion and the Railway Engine (steam, naturally, sia), the Lion and the Railway Engine (steam, naturally, since most engines here are still coal-fired.)