Indira Gandhi has been given a political reprieve by voters of two large and important southern Indian states, but how far that writ extends and what the former prime minister intends to do with it remain very much open to question.

Although she was disgraced and badly beaten at the polls just a year ago, Ghandi and her faction have regained what they lost last March 20 following 20 months of draconian emergency rule: political legitimacy.

It is important as far as India's national political future is concerned, however, to note that Gandhi still has only a narrow regional base.

When the results were in from last weekend's elections for six state assemblies, the ruling Janata Party found that Gandhi had emerged with solid majorities in two states, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and a standoff in a third, Marahashtra. In three small and relatively inconsequential northeastern states, the results pose no threat to the Janata.

Still, when the ruling party's hierarchy met earlier this week, Janata leaders asked themselves the kind of questions many political analysts have been pondering.

How did Indira do it? What will happen to the country's various fragile political alliances following her victories? What does it all mean for the political climate in the months ahead?

There are good political reasons that account for Gandhis victories in the states where she won decisively, but nobody could deny her courage in daring to trust her fate to an electorate that had overwhelmingly rejected her only 11 months earlier.

The climate was hardly favorable. A national commission of inquiry was making daily disclosures of atrocities committed under Gandhi's regime of emergency rule. She was in trouble with thel aw for defying the commission's demand that she appear before it. And there was the bitter legacy of the emergency itself - the forced sterilizations and imprisonments, much of it at the behest of her son Sanjay.

Despite her past political mistakes, however, Gandhi remains a shrewd political tactician and the roots of her latest victories go back to a decision she made last September, against the counsel of almost all her close associates, to test her popularity in her old constituency of Rae Bareli.

The voters who had ousted her in the national elections last March greeted her with cheers that September day, and despite initial claims in the press that the crowds were bought and that conunter demonstrators were beaten down by thugs, a basic recognition dawned that Indira Gandhi, was battling her way back.

What's more, Rae Barelis in northern India's Hindi speaking belt and the key state elections this past weekend were in the non-Hindi speaking south - a geographical fact of great political importance and not a small amount of irony.

India's new rulers are champions of Hindi as a national language and the people of southern India fear political and cultural domination from the north today as they have throughout the country's history.In addition, the south felt only a minimal impact from Gandhi's emergency rule compared to the Hindi-speaking heartland. The legacy of the emergency, then, was much thinner there.

Given the fact that little has been done under the new government to relieve the poverty of the small farmer and the peasant - and little could be expected in so short a time - her election rallies in Karvataka and Audhra Pradesh turned into noisy demonstrations of India's underprivileged who were happy to forget the inequities of the emergency for the promises of a resurgence or pride and energy under the women they regard as Mother India.

In neighboring Maharashtra, where the emergency rule was much harsher, the results were far more balanced.

There is irony, however, in the fact that a Kashmiri brahmin whose base has always been in the Hindi-speaking north now has her only proven fount of power in southern India. Her popularity in the dominant Hindi belt is, as yet, untested, and is not due to face a true test at the polls for perhaps another four years.

While there has been no real head-on clash between Gandhi's power and that of the ruling party, her victories will mean a readjustment of the country's political alliances. The old guard of the Congress Party, from whichGandhi broke on Jan 2, has could be a scramble by what is left of the party machinery to join either the new "Indira" Congress or, in some cases, the ruling Janata coalition. Many in the Congress hierarchy may well feel themselves closer to Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who once split with Gandhi himself, than to the Nehru political dynasty in its latest incarnation.

The ultimate question remains newfound power?

Indira Gandhi intend to do with her new found power?

Some commentators regard the election as grimly portentious. The Times of India said this week that Gandhi's determination to regain power "raises frightening implications for the future of democracy."

Others wonder at the practical implications in the coming months. If as she has said, she does not intend to return to Parliament and plans to lead her opposition movement from outside the conventional forum of a democracy, how will she go about it? Will she take her campaign to the streets with marches, strikes and demonstrations in the mantle of Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent resistance? The opposition to her own emergency rule began in just such a fashion.

Still others say that the ruling party has not fared so badly and that it has both the time and the necessary support to ram through its programs of social and economic reform.

This argument says that the Janata coalition has time to act, even if it has to dilute some of its more archaic proposals and take more care to be seen as a champion of India's many minorities. The drive to make Hindi a national language is already being dumped, partly as a consequence of the weekend losses in the south.

To take advantage of the time it has to act, however, the coalition is going to have to stop the squabbling that has marked its first year and take clear, decisive political steps. The alternative, in the view of many, would be to allow Gandhi to capitalize on her new and threatening position with incalculable consequences for the future India's newfound democracy.

Special correspondent Simon Winchester in New Delhi contributed to this story.