Almost my first thought on hearing that the bullets had done their deadly work was that Providence was a discriminator. The pope, President Reagan and, most recently, Prime Minister Thatcher had been spared, but Indira Gandhi was not. We do not know our destinies.

Indira the skinny child knew that the foreigner's raj had to be opposed and knew, too, that her father's absences were explained by the raj's wish to imprison him. But even after she became a young woman she could not have known that the raj would depart, her father would rule India for 17 years and she would do almost exactly the same.

Her political rivals did not know Indira Gandhi's destiny, either. She was named prime minister in 1966 because the bosses of her Congress Party needed a marionette for the 1967 elections. As Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter, she would pull crowds and votes; they would pull strings. One cartoon showed Indira as a girl in skirts in a jungle where fierce-looking tree- trunks bore the faces of the party chiefs; it was captioned "Babe in the Woods."

Before long the political innocent was breaking and remaking her party and dispatching the bosses to oblivion. At the end of 1971, she stood tall indeed. She had resoundingly won an election, helped liberate Bangladesh, defeated the Pakistanis and, at a moment when Indian troops held every advantage, declared a unilateral cease-fire.

How will she stand in history? No unprejudiced chronicler will fail to note her ability to make the tough choice, take the hard gamble and stand unmoved before a hostile crowd. Her charm and atonishing stamina, her 1977 smile at defeat and at the loneliness it brought, her 1980 comeback, her fortitude when she tragically lost a son, Sanjay -- these, too, will be recorded. And her independence. She was no one's and no superpower's stooge.

These enviable and remarkable qualities will enter history, but in small print. For a headline she will need the title of India's unifier. It is clear that she would have prized the title, and there were moments when she gave the impression that she possessed it. But it is by no means clear that she earned it.

As 1972 began, her chances of making an India out of Indians seemed greater than those of almost anyone else. The religious minorities -- Moslims, Sikhs and Christians -- trusted her, as did the untouchables and the indigenous peoples. Believing in her slogan, the poor thought that she would garibi hatao (remove poverty), and the rich backed her because she was the unchallenged ruler.

She did not succeed. She was prime minister for more than 16 years, but at the end Indians were not more unified than they had been before she became their leader. This year one could speak of galloping sectionalism and of wounding blows to "Indianness." Slogans of Sikh, Hindu, Moslim, untouchable or ethnic solidarity pierced the Indian air, but champions of Indian solidarity seemed hard to locate.

Indira Gandhi tried hard. She used the stick. She held long negotiations. To some of the groups tempted by separatism she offered carrots (though not in the last year of so). At times she seemed to show that the group she was talking to, and not her side, was responsible for failure to reach a settlement. But sectionalism did not end.

The reason it did not was, perhaps, peculiarly Indian. In 1975 a High Court found her guilty of corrupt electoral practices. She could resign or stay on, but it was obvious that staying on would also mean the use of harsh measures to restrain opponents who were demanding her resignation.

As we all know, she chose the lattr course and had to impose an emergency so disliked that Indira Gandhi had to assure voters in the 1980 election that she could not conceive of an emergency again for another "hundred years."

What had gone wrong? It is not as if Indians have always disliked firmness in a leader. They love strong and martial heroes from India's past. In more recent times Mahatma Gandhi was not always easily budgeable, and neither, really, was Nehru, nor Vallabhbhai Patel, the person largely responsible for the integration into India of hundreds of principalities when the British left.

Indians respect a wielder of power, which is why they allowed the British raj to flourish. Because they do, they hailed the 1972 Indira. At the same time, however, Indians disapprove of what they see as a desire for power. They want a ruler who can also be a renouncer.

When Indira Gandhi chose to stay in power and to amend laws to make her continuance easier, many Indians smelled "chair-hunger." Chair-hunger, alas, is disreputable in India. Thereafter, she could do nothing without being seen by influential Indians as a politician advancing her personal interests.

Sadly but inevitably, India was divided into pro- Indira and anti-Indira halves. And, for all her electoral success, when the unifier could be seen or projected by some as a divider, she lost that all- India good will that was essential to her task of persuading the sectionalists to put India first.

Of course, if Rajiv Gandhi shows that he is tough and flexible and yet not inseparable from the ruler's chair, he may yet have a part in helping to realize his mother's goal. It is a cruelly large task for one so sharply wounded in his depths.