With our usual haziness about things Indian, the press has generally reported that this week's visit of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi will be her first in "more than a decade."

It is, in fact, her first visit in nine years. The press is to be forgiven this lapse, however, for it may be that only I, a few New York State troopers and the Indian ambassador to the United States were aware the last visit even took place. Gandhi, as prime minister, had some business in Canada. On a summer morning, June 21, 1973, she flew down to Lake Placid to visit for an hour or so with an old friend, Lucille Kyle, who lived there in retirement. As American ambassador to India, I was on hand to meet her, as protocol required.

Just what the relationship between the two ladies had been I never did learn. Nor did I think the Indian ambassador knew, although he chatted knowledgably as we hung about outside the Adirondacks cabin where the two old friends were drinking tea. The one thing we did know was that there was no question of the prime minister's visiting Washington now that she had made her way to North America.

How changed, changed utterly, were our relations then (and now) as compared with her visit in 1966. The contrast between these two past occasions tells so much about our two countries.

It was at the height of the Great Society and Lyndon Johnson's exuberance about the world. The monsoon had failed. Indians would starve. Save that America was going to feed them. And why not? There was plenty to go around, and no need for suffering, no need for poverty. America would do more. The Indians would pay for our grain shipments in rupees. A vast sum would be accumulated. A yet vaster undertaking would follow. In his toast at dinner in the White House March 28, 1966, LBJ declared:

"So may we, Madam Prime Minister, with the permission of your government and the American Congress, launch a new and imaginative venture. We shall call it an Indo-American Foundation. I would propose that this foundation be established in India, and that it be endowed with $300 million in Indian currency owned by the United States. Other foundations all over the world will cooperate, I am sure, with an enterprise of this kind.

"I would suggest that this foundation be organized as an independent institution--with distinguished citizens of both our countries on its board of directors. I would propose that the new foundation be given a broad charter to promote progress in all fields of learning--to develop new teaching techniques on the farms and in the factories--to stimulate, if you please, new ways to meet old problems."

In the joint statement that concluded her visit, "Prime Minister Gandhi welcomed the President's proposal. . . ."

Looking back, it is hard to believe. The proposal was, in fact, to establish a commission with an American executive director to assume control of and pay for Indian higher education. With the best intentions in the world, we had proposed-- and they had agreed--to have America take over, well, the modern Indian culture.

It was only on the plane back that the Indians had second thoughts. But consider what they thought of our relations that they could entertain the idea in the first place. It was a period of heart- thumping romance that bordered on the blind staggers. On both sides. In the 1950s, India surpassed all nations as the symbol of hope and progress among progressive academics. Just to have been there for a summer, much less to have worked on The Plan was, well, to get tenure at minimum and, likely as not, a vice presidency of the Ford Foundation (which built a headquarters in New Delhi almost as grandiose as those in Manhattan). When the Chinese came over the border in 1962, the Indians went directly to us asking for military aid, and our ambassador, John Kenneth Galbraith, went directly to the front with whiskey for the officers and cheers for the sepoys.

What happened? We fell out of love. Americans knew nothing of India. It is, in fact, as their travel posters proclaim, the most foreign of all lands. It is! Indians knew nothing of us, except as surrogate British with the transparently devious device of appearing to be generous, much as the British would occasionally suggest they were really mainly interested in the work of the missionaries.

Military aid to Pakistan began the breach. The Bangladesh war broke the relationship almost completely. It was coming anyway, but it gives no pleasure to state that, on that occasion, the Indians were right and we quite totally wrong. Not least because whatever other effect it would have, it would ineluctably have that one.

I was on the American delegation to the U.N. General Assembly in 1971 and protested our policy. This made it inevitable that I was sent to New Delhi in 1973. No longer a reward, but a dare of sorts, if you liked that kind of thing. I settled the rupee debt--now amounting to a third of the Indian currency, and a preoccupation of their finance ministers. They got 16,640,000,000 rupees to use for good works of their own devising; we retained some 8 billion with which to fly Americans to conferences in Kashmir. Not a bad settlement if you recall that the Canadians, proportionately, sent as much wheat as we had in 1965-66, only they gave theirs away free and clear. (The Indians, meticulous in such matters, have let us dispose of our rupees exactly as we choose, especially on their airlines.) After that, there wasn't much to do but think of the future.

It is worth perhaps just a little something to know that an American ambassador left India in 1975 convinced that nothing would change until the event occurred which now has occurred and which accordingly brings the prime minister here. Which is to say that the Mongols have once again appeared in the Khyber Pass.

That is one thing that can be learned about Hindu India. For a thousand years it has been overrun by wave after wave of Central Asians making their way through Afghanistan, breaking out through the pass onto the North Indian plain. (The mountains there are known as the Hindu Kush, meaning Hindu killer, the fate of most of the slaves marched back into Uzbekistan.) The Great Game has concluded. The Russians have won. Their armor is now in the Khyber Pass. Of necessity, the ruler of India is in Washington.

We welcome her. If I had advice for my own government, it would be threefold. Assure India that we will not try to pass any more legislation-- as tried in 1980 with respect to fuel for the Tarapur reactor--which in effect assumes that it will be obeyed in India as if it were a law enacted in Westminster in the age of the Raj. After a millenium of subjection, there is at last a unified and independent nation. No sacrifice will be too great for them in maintaining that independence.

Second, calling attention to the large and growing and altogether welcome number of Indian immigrants to the United States, ask if it were not possible to arrange for a few more Americans to reside and carry on their professions and businesses in India. When I left in 1975, there were fewer than one dozen American businessmen left. I doubt there are a half dozen left today. This has been the decision of the government of India, but it is a mistake for it to allow our relations, while cordial, to grow so thin.

On the other hand, do not talk free enterprise. The economy of India is not what the Indians say it is--socialism--but rather a variant of state capitalism. It is highly inefficient except for one thing, which is that it concentrates enough power in the hands of government to enable government to rule. In the main, this is a decent and democratic rule, and that is to be valued above all things.

Third, promise little. It is much too soon for Indians to believe our promises, especially where arms are concerned. In any event, the balanced budget amendment will put an end to all foreign and military aid.